Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cui bono?

The S.O. did a post yesterday on drug testing politicians. His point was that from the perspective of harm reduction it would do society more good to make sure the lawmakers aren't stoned than it would to go after some poor sap applying for food stamps. That was, after all, the original argument for drug testing: harm reduction. Protect the public by keeping stoned long-haul truckers off the highways, chemically impaired pilots out of cockpits, and so on. I don't think most people have much of an objection to trying to ensure that someone flying a 747 or driving a school bus isn't high.

Of course, the rationale now for piss testing isn't to protect the public -- it's ostensibly to save taxpayer dollars by making sure lowlifes aren't swapping their food stamps (or the equivalent thereof) for doobies or meth. The folks peddling this particular brand of snake oil (criminalizing poverty and punishing the poor for being poor) always make it sound like huge savings are going to accrue to the taxpayers, which is bull. I couldn't find any recent data, but in 2006 the average welfare benefit per household in the United States was under $400 a month. Somehow I doubt that the potential savings from booting a tiny percentage of applicants out of the system is going to offset the cost of administering the tests. So the question what's the real motivation behind the push for drug testing? Cui bono? Who benefits?

Well, it's not the American public. The underlying motivation isn't austerity or saving the public money. It's to create more customers for the companies that manufacture and/or administer the drug tests. If you look at the history of drug testing -- from a few persons in sensitive jobs to company-wide or agency-wide pre-employment testing of everyone and anyone on the payroll, regardless of type of work done -- you see the sad history of products and processes in search of a market. People poor enough to qualify for welfare or unlucky enough to need to apply for unemployment compensation don't hire high dollar Washington lobbyists; the drug testing industry does.

Even more interestingly, quite a few politicians have financial interests in the testing companies. Why am I not surprised? With almost any social problem, when some politician proposes a solution, ask yourself "Who benefits?" and then follow the money. You won't have to flip over many rocks to find corruption oozing out. Classic example: Rick Scott, governor of Florida, pushed hard for drug testing people applying for welfare. Rick Scott, millionaire, had a major financial interest in the urgent care clinics that would perform that testing.

Of course, demonizing the poor and suggesting that anyone who is unlucky enough to need welfare is probably some drug-sucking lowlife also plays nicely into the right-wing's goal of keeping lower-income voters divided and marginalized, but I'm never quite sure which comes first: the political strategy or seeing a fresh opportunity for graft.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Another of life's little mysteries: mismatched talents

I've been working on fixing up a space to use as a home office. We have a front porch that started off as an open air space, but was later enclosed to create an airlock entry into the house. The interior was never finished, though. The walls were raw wood: T1-11 siding on the side that used to be an exterior wall of the house, and plywood on the others, and, with the exception of what used to be an exterior window, there was no trim around the windows or doors. I decided that if I was going to use it was a home office space, I was going to make sure the finishing work was done before any furniture got moved in. So I started painting.
Priming the T1-11
I love to paint. I really enjoy messing with color and changing the looks of things just by slapping a coat or two of paint on it. And that's the operative word: messing. I love to paint, but I'm terrible at it. I dribble, I splatter, I end up with paint on anything and everything that comes within ten feet of me. I start off with good intentions, trying to implement everything I've ever been told about the proper techniques to prevent strange runs and drips on the wall or woodwork or whatever it is I'm painting, and end up slathering paint on with a brush that has somehow devolved into a trowel. Naturally, this lack of skill is hard on the equipment. When I told the Younger Daughter I was using her Purdy brushes, I could hear her flinch over the phone. I had to quickly reassure her that I was joking, and I had acquired a stash of throw-aways.

Fortunately, in the case of my soon-to-be home office, the fact I'm a painting slob doesn't matter. I can't ruin the floor, because it's just scrap vinyl that's going to be discarded soon, and the wall surfaces (especially the T1-11) are rough enough that paint boogers aren't particularly noticeable. I didn't even have to worry about messing up the ceiling because it's going to be wallpapered with old quad maps -- and it's just OSB anyway. I have, however, told the S.O. he has to paint the door frame. Our front door is a salvaged antique door that the Younger Daughter put a lot of effort into refinishing. I kept it shrouded in plastic when I had to work near it, but I don't think even multiple plastic drop cloths would protect it from me if I had to be painting right next to it. So the S.O. gets to do it.
Final color in progress. I primed the ceiling because it's going to be papered, and wanted to make it easier for that wallpaper to be removed if we get tired of it. 
The S.O. is actually quite good at painting. He's meticulous, a perfectionist. When he paints something, it ends up looking good. No holidays, no paint boogers, no weirdness at all. Only one problem: he hates to paint.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

I say that without much enthusiasm. Christmas has never been on my list of favorite holidays. I associate the day too much with unrealistic expectations, crushing disappointments, family drama, and bad news in general. The ghosts of Christmas past include gems like the year the S.O.'s "bonus" from his employer was a pink slip.

Maybe it's the season, maybe it's the two funerals we've attended this month, or maybe it's just a generalized malaise triggered by the sad state of the nation, but I haven't felt much like posting lately. Here's hoping that now that the solstice is behind us and the days are getting longer again, the urge to write will return. Until then, happy holidays.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Writing Life and Reality Checks

The S.O. and I drove up to Calumet yesterday for an author's talk and book signing sponsored by the Friends of the Calumet Public Library. The S.O.'s cousin, Mel Laurila, had mentioned in June that his first novel, Mine Games, had been accepted for publication. At that time, he thought it would be rolling off the presses by late summer. Nope. Actual publication (as in hard copies ready for sale to the reading public) happened about a week ago.

Mel's talk was interesting, and not just for the specific insights into the book. It's a murder mystery set in Michigan's Copper Country that uses the possible reopening of a historic copper mine as a motivation for murder. Mel knows the area and the subject matter quite well, having graduated from Michigan Tech and spent the past 30 or so years working in the mining industry. The plot revolves around what happens when the mine changes ownership and someone dies. I look forward to reading it and seeing how I do with his challenge to see how early in the book I can figure out who's responsible for what.

His talk also served as a major reality check for any aspiring novelists in the audience. It really made it clear just how much work is involved in getting published, both before and after acceptance by a publisher. You hear stories about rejection -- Stephenie Meyer, for example, likes to tell interviewers that her first novel was rejected something like14 times before being picked up by a publisher. Well, it appears 14 rejection letters are nothing, a mere blip, they barely qualify as painful. Mel did 153 submissions to potential agents and publishers before hitting pay dirt. One hundred fifty-three. Now, that's persistence.

After publication, of course, you have to leap on to the promotion bandwagon -- hustle for book signings, arrange for talk show appearances, agree to anything and everything you can do to get the public to notice Your Book. If that hustling includes doing things like keeping cases of books in your car, seeking out every independent bookstore you can find on your own and persuading the managers to sell your book, you do it. -- because if some magic minimum number of sold copies isn't achieved, your first novel published could very well be your last.

Bottom line: if you believe in your work, you never give up.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

If you thought the gift shops at Disneyland were bad

An elderly relative died this past Monday; the funeral was yesterday. In most ways, it was a pretty typical event. The decedent was quite old, she'd been in declining health for a number of years, and her demise was not unexpected. People were understandably sad, tears were shed, and life goes on. The funeral itself was what one would expect -- the minister talked about the wonderful characteristics of the decedent (a woman he had  met one time, and then only briefly) while those of us in the pews did our own mental editing/reality check. (If the dearly departed were even half as wonderful as eulogies always make the deceased sound, it would be a lot harder to let go.) The only surprising thing was that the church was not as full as I had thought it would be given how active the woman had been in the community in her younger days, but then I realized that the decedent had simply managed to outlive most of her contemporaries.

Visitation at the funeral home the night before held a few surprises, though. I've always been intrigued about customs and practices surrounding death, the various attitudes and rituals and their evolution over time. Americans have always struck me as being a tad squeamish about the subject. After all, the culture has abdicated personal responsibility by allowing professional funeral directors to take over what were once intimate family tasks: preparing the body for burial, for example, and digging the grave. For centuries, too, western culture has isolated the dead from the living: unlike some cultures where the bones of revered ancestors become part of the household (e.g., skulls up on the ceiling beams or bones buried in the floor), western European societies planted the dead in graveyards. That's changed a little with the advent of cremation -- during the 20th century it became acceptable, if not widely common, to have the cremains of a loved one residing in a tasteful urn on the credenza in the living room.

I've got to admire the funeral industry for managing to take that tasteful urn and move it to a whole new level. While sitting around sipping coffee at the funeral home, I realized I'd inadvertently wandered into the world's creepiest gift shop. The built-in bookcases and various other surfaces were full of display models of different items grieving families can purchase. You can now get individual urns:
Instead of the deceased's ashes residing in one large urn for all eternity, you can divide him or her among the family members. Personally, I find this a little creepy, but I know not everyone feels that way -- my older grandson was the recipient of such an urn after his other grandmother died a few years ago, and he seems quite happy to have it.

Individual urns not quite your thing? Or there are so many family members (and the decedent was a frail little thing who's not going to provide much ash to work with) that even the small urns are too large? How about some cremation jewelry? You can have ashes compressed into fake diamonds, or you can go for something a little less intense, like a heart you can wear as a necklace or on a charm bracelet:
What about the men, you ask? After all, guys aren't likely to want to wear a heart-shaped pendant no matter how much they loved their mother. Got them covered. Keychains, with a wide variety of designs to pick from:
I can see it now -- "I'll take the one with the gecko on it. Mom always loved those GEICO ads."

The options for stuff you can do with cremains don't stop with urns and jewelry, of course. You can take those ashes and have them made into stained glass. You can buy various pieces of innocuous looking household items that have compartments for cremains: desk lamps, for example. You can get urns that look like bookends (and can be used the same way) if you want to be subtle, or you can get urns that look like miniature caskets or sarcophagi if you want the urn to be a blatant piece of memento mori.

But what about families who don't opt for cremation? Aren't they kind of S.O.L. when it comes to death memorabilia? Not really. There are now these nifty little pieces of jewelry, which get sold by companies such as Thumbies:
You can have your loved one's fingerprints permanently embedded in a piece of (not cheap) jewelry that you can treasure forever. Holy crap. First they guilt you into the Cadillac casket, and then they swing into full up-sell mode by peddling tchotchkes to help guarantee that whatever estate the decedent had is thoroughly eviscerated. I'd love to hear the sales pitch for this stuff. What can they possibly say? Your mother's last wish was to be fingerprinted? She never had a chance to do one of those plaster-of-paris wall plaques in kindergarten; here's your opportunity to make it up to her?

Bottom line: prearrangements are looking better and better. Signing up with a burial society, making damn sure everyone knows the one and only thing I want is the absolute cheapest cremation done as quickly as possible, ashes in a milk carton or coffee can because they're going to get scattered, and no money whatsoever being spent in the world's creepiest gift shop.

[cross posted at I See Dead People

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

An update, sort of

How many people are actually unemployed in the United States? I got another partial answer -- the estimated number of "discouraged workers." Those are the folks who have been unemployed long enough or had such disheartening experiences while job hunting that they've given up. Apparently it comes close to being a one-for-one match. That is, for every person who is officially unemployed, there's another person who's a discouraged worker and no longer counts. Which is, I guess, another way of saying that if the official unemployment rate for persons who would fall within the parameters of the labor force (ages 15 through 64) is about 9%, the actual is more like 18%. Maybe.

Whatever the real numbers are, it does raise an interesting question: just how the fuck are people surviving? I heard a bizarre story on NPR this morning touting the underground economy, the informal economy, which the supposed expert was quick to note does not necessarily entail illegal activity (e.g., drug dealing), but I find it hard to believe many people can manage to survive for very long by holding endless yard sales, scrounging for scrap metal, or doing unlicensed daycare in their homes.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Question: What is the actual unemployment rate in the United States these days?

Answer: No one knows.

I haven't been paying much attention to the news lately, but one item that has gotten repeated a lot (even on the local classic rock station) is that the latest official national unemployment rate has dipped below 9%. This is viewed as good news, and maybe it is. Then again, maybe it isn't. Have the numbers gone down because fewer people are losing their jobs? More people are returning to work? More people have had their unemployment benefits run out and so are no longer counted as among the unemployed? How about the jobless who never qualified for unemployment compensation to begin with? Did they count when they first lost their jobs, and do they count now? Does anyone know?

This is a question I've thought about for years. At one time the official unemployment rate was determined by doing a phone survey of a random sample of the population: x-number of households would be called and people asked if they were working or looking for work (and, from what I could determine from looking at the Labor Department web site, that's still the methodology used). Didn't matter if you were working less than full-time or if you were working for less money than you wanted or needed, if you collected wages for at least one hour of work per week, you were employed. If you had been unable to find work for so long you'd given up, you were no longer statistically unemployed. You might not have a job, you might wish you had a job, but if you weren't out there pounding the pavement or sending out resumes, you were not unemployed for statistical purposes.

Phone surveys have some obvious flaws. Even back before the proliferation of cell phones, there were always people who did not have a telephone. Any active job seekers who didn't have phones were automatically excluded from the survey data. Given that people without jobs are probably more likely than people with jobs to not have a telephone, how skewed did that make the data? Who knows? And did anyone care?

Another way of talking about unemployment rates is to look at how many people are drawing unemployment compensation at any point in time. If you're unemployed, you're on unemployment, right? Wrong. Depending on the state, as few as 30% of people who lose their jobs actually qualify for unemployment benefits. If your job is seasonal, you might be screwed: back during the Engler administration, the state of Michigan changed its rules to prevent seasonal workers from collecting anything. To draw any benefits in Michigan, you have to have wages earned in more than one quarter of a year during the past 5 quarters and you have to have earned  a certain minimum amount in each of those quarters. If you're a minimum wage worker depending on seasonal work (e.g., motel maid in a summer resort town), you may never earn enough money to qualify for unemployment when the inevitable furloughs happen. I had the disconcerting experience once of having worked full-time for almost a full year and then when the job ended in mid-June being told I didn't qualify for unemployment insurance because I had not been working in June the year before. It was bizarre: ten months of full-time employment at a decent wage, and still not eligible for unemployment compensation.

The other way (and probably the most common way) the unemployed find themselves disqualified for unemployment compensation is when their former employer makes a false claim that the employee was fired for cause rather than being furloughed due to lack of work. One of the great myths circulating among the credulous is that if you get fired, you can go on unemployment. Not true. Being terminated for cause (and cause can be very loosely defined) is an automatic disqualification. So is voluntary termination without cause -- i.e., if you quit a job because you don't like it, you can't draw unemployment; if you quit a job for a good reason (your paycheck bounced, for example, or working conditions are unsafe and you can prove it), you might qualify for jobless benefits. I once worked as a power sewing machine operator for a company where the paychecks bounced; several of us quit, we filed for unemployment, the owner* tried to deny the claim, and the unemployment referee ruled that it is a fundamental right of employees to get paid for their work. Of course, that was back in the halcyon days of the Carter administration; I fear the ruling would be different today.

So if the Labor Department's numbers are skewed because of a dubious methodology and the numbers for people drawing unemployment compensation only catch a minority of the actual unemployed, just what is the unemployment rate in the United States? Or, to put it another way, just how much worse is the truth than the sugar-coated information the politicians are giving us? Is there any way to know?

[*To this day, I'm amazed he was able to put down the coke spoon long enough to pay attention to the business for more than a nanosecond. Paychecks bounced because most assets were going up his nose.]

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Strange dreams

I woke up dreaming of geese. Large, gray African geese, the type that can make even a Jehovah's Witness think twice about stepping into a yard. We used to have such geese -- they scared the bejesus out of everyone who had the misfortune of turning their backs on the velociraptors waterfowl. But that was over 30 years ago. . . so why am I dreaming about geese now?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: Dark Banquet

This was one of the niftiest books I'd read in awhile. I picked it up in the gift shop at Hot Springs National Park back in September. The author starts off by talking about vampire bats -- the subject of his original Ph.D. research -- but gets into describing a variety of predators and parasites that live on blood. Did you know leeches used to be one of the preferred treatments for hemorrhoids? Physicians would put little silk leashes on the wee beasties to make sure they didn't wander too far afield while fulfilling their therapeutic mission.

The popularity of leeches for treating a wide range of human ailments almost drove one species of leech (Hirudo medicinalis) into extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. The demand was so great that more leeches were being harvested than the natural reproduction rate could sustain. Fortunately for the leeches, medical practices changed and leeching stopped being viewed as a cure-all for every ailment. Leeches never totally vanished from medicine and are still being used today, but their application is much more specialized.

Interesting though the leeches were, the best part of the book is probably the section on vampire bats. Vampire bats pose all sorts of challenges for researchers. Among other things, they can be remarkably fastidious -- it's hard to keep some species alive in captivity. There's apparently more involved in bat care than just wandering down to the local slaughterhouse and requesting buckets of fresh blood. You also need a flock of donor chickens that the bats can sample occasionally -- maybe there is something to that staple of vampire fiction, the life source or life energies? Characters in vampire novels are always complaining that, yes, it is possible to survive for awhile on bags of blood pilfered from the Red Cross, but it's not enough -- every so often a vampire needs to get its blood from a real live victim.

One thing that surprised me was learning just how tiny the typical vampire bat is. Seeing a drawing of the preferred position of one species while feeding on chickens roosting in a tree makes it pretty clear that the image perpetuated in horror films -- the huge flapping monstrous bats that look like they could suck an ox dry in record time -- is well removed from reality. Vampire bats are tiny. Of course, if you get dozens of the critters all wanting to feed on just one or two animals, the host animal is going to be in trouble pretty quickly. Farmers in Trinidad lose chickens fairly often to vampire bats -- one bat may not take enough blood for the bird to notice, but multiple bats can cause anemia severe enough to kill a hen quickly.

Illustrations in the book are nicely done and do a great job of complementing the text. As science books go, this one was a joy to read and one I'd highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in biology or the natural world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Isolation has its charms

One of the great things about moving back to the U.P. has been the relative isolation from the mindless noise machine that is the mainstream media. We're so far out in the boonies that we can't be tempted to sell our souls to Comcast or Charter, and we're not feeling sufficiently television-deprived yet to fall for a sales pitch from DISH. We are now enjoying a life refreshingly free of noise from the chattering classes.

Oh, there is radio, of course, if I feel the need for a news fix, but local news tends to consist of reports about lost dogs, and national news is courtesy of NPR -- and NPR, regardless if it's Morning Edition or All Things Considered, is valium for the ears. The discourse is always so thoroughly modulated and toned down that they could be telling us a giant flaming meteor is heading straight for earth and we're all going to be dead before sundown, and the listener reaction would be to yawn and think, oh, good, now I don't have to feel guilty about eating that second Danish.

That's not to say we haven't been leading a totally television-free life. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (i.e., the Intertubes), I can indulge my C-SPAN addiction (although I've been able to ignore it for the past week), and we can view some news and opinion programs: both Al Jazeera and Russian TV do live streams of their programming. I love Al Jazeera. They do long reports on serious issues, quality reporting on real world problems that would never make the cut on any U.S. network, broadcast or cable. Last night I watched a fascinating piece on controversies in wildlife conservation (the general theme was is it worth it to invest millions of dollars trying to preserve an iconic species, e.g., giant pandas, or should preservation focus more on preserving species diversity and habitat?) (Is it worth it to keep pandas going if the only places they can survive are in artificial environments like zoos?). Maybe a program like Frontline on PBS would do a similar report, but I'm skeptical. 

Of course, even Al Jazeera could not resist wading into the weeds that are the Herman Cain campaign. The latest revelations about Cain did absolutely nothing to dispel my belief that he never intended to be taken seriously as a candidate. His campaign organization was close to nonexistent, he manages to say something truly stupid on a regular basis, and he had to know reports of the harassment claims (and their subsequent settlements) would eventually surface. His plan had to be to simply raise his profile to the point where it helped up his speaking fees and (if he got lucky) land him a gig on Fox News as a commentator/co-host. Instead, in the bizarro world that the current members of the Republican Party inhabit, the more inept and sleazy Cain looks, the higher his poll numbers go. It's a whole new level of It's Okay if You're a Republican. The same folks who were outraged, truly, truly outraged that Bill Clinton had an intern volunteer to perform sexual favors are just fine with the Pizza Man grabbing some unsuspecting woman's head and shoving it towards his lap. The stupid, it burns.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Time to unpack the mittens

The weather forecast was for 1 to 3 inches. We're up to at least 6, and it's still coming down.

Update: Grand total appears to be a little over a foot of the type of snow kids love -- wet and sticky, perfect for building snowmen.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sweet Jesus, we're moving to Mordor

We've moved. Sort of. We still have to unload the U-Haul at the storage unit, but we're definitely back in Upper Michigan. It does feel good to be back on the tundra even though there were a few moments along the way -- like when I saw that black wall of clouds on the horizon that just seemed to scream SNOW! while heading north on I-39 -- when I started wondering just what type of idiot decides to move North in November.

If we are lucky (or smart) this will be the last move we do that we actually do ourselves. When and if there's a next time, I have no intention of being the poor sap actually schlepping the boxes on to the truck. I always think of us as being rather nonmaterialistic, not the type of people to have a lot of "stuff," but it felt like it took forever to get our not-much-stuff out of a small 1-bedroom apartment. I kept thinking this was going to be an easier move than the one from Omaha to Atlanta because I'd thinned things out more (including donating a couple large pieces of furniture to Salvation Army). I was wrong. It took every bit as long to load the truck this time as it did back in 2007.

Now that we're here, of course, the S.O. and I have to figure out how to integrate our not-much-stuff into a cabin that's already fully furnished. I need to set up a home office space for my computer so we won't be pushing and shoving over whose turn it is to use the laptop, which is going to be tricky because we're both pretty thoroughly addicted to wandering around the blogosphere. And I need to go shopping for a parka -- it hit me yesterday that here we are, back in the land of winters that last 6 months, and I no longer own a jacket designed for surviving snow and subzero temperatures. It may be above freezing outside today, but that's not going to last much longer. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How extreme is too extreme?

I think the Republican Party may have found it. When you have people like Pat Robertson, the man who said Hurricane Katrina was God's way of punishing New Orleans for the existence of homosexuality, using his platform on the 700 Club to say the party is going too far into the bushes, you know for sure they've slid over the line into Total Crazy. As Terence Heath noted,

If having Peggy Noonan as the voice of reason is like having Courtney Love show up at your intervention, and having David Brooks as the voice of sanity is like having Charlie Sheen offer to drive you to rehab, then having Pat Robertson attempt to talk you down from the ledge may be a bit like having Keith Richards as your rehab counselor.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The clock lies

The countdown clock is off a bit -- the Great Escape is now barely 4 days away. The U-Haul is reserved for noon on Friday, and by Sunday morning we should be somewhere in Tennessee heading north. We are getting into that phase of moving that's always a nuisance: wanting to finish packing, but unable to because I can't decide if I'll need something in the next 72 hours or not.

Thanks to a fortunate coincidence, though, it appears I will be gainfully employed awhile longer. I was in the process of persuading my manager to allow me to telework when Large Nameless Agency took the issue out of our hands. It was coming dangerously close to me trotting out an ultimatum: I telework, or I retire. That discussion has now been postponed for a few weeks.

It appears LNA screwed up (what a shock!) in planning for the upcoming office shuffle. The journal is slated to exit its current leased office space to move into space in one of the buildings on the main LNA campus. That space has to be remodeled to accommodate the "densification" of personnel (i.e., walls have to be ripped out so existing offices can be made smaller and more cubicles can be crammed into the square footage). And where were the cubicles and office furniture (workstations, etc) going to come from to put into that new space, you ask? Recycling, of course. They're going to take our current work stations and cubicles and move them.

A good plan, but one that contains an obvious flaw: those work stations are being used. What happens to the employees while the fixtures in the leased office space are disassembled, moved, and then reassembled? Where do they go?

Answer: they telework. The word came down last week that everyone at the journal gets to work from home for most of November and part of December. Everyone on the journal staff has to be out of his or her current space by November 10; they'll get to move into the new LNA office space sometime after December 5. Mass panic ensued, with one exception.

Me. The person over in the corner quietly doing the happy dance. I've just been told to work from home. No one's bothered asking where "home" is. I have been trying to tell them, but, as usual, everyone is so focused on their own problems that it's not really sinking in when I say stuff like "I need Friday off to load the U-Haul" and "Here's my Michigan phone number." Oh well, I tried.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Major score

The office chair of my dreams found mingling with a pack of ordinary, ergonomically horrible chairs in one of the vacated cubicles. Hard to believe the person lucky enough to have it didn't insist on having it moved to his or her new workspace because it is so much better than the typical el cheapo furniture.

I love this chair. Too bad I won't get to enjoy it very long. Oh well, 9 work days of sitting in comfort is better than none at all.

I am mildly surprised none of my coworkers snagged it before I did -- we've all been circling through the vacated work spaces foraging for office supplies (binders, hole punches, various other odds and ends we can never manage to persuade our admin person to order for us). I wonder if the first buzzard to spot some fresh roadkill experiences the same sense of elation?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Alternate universes

I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher last night, and it struck me (again) how often people will yell loudly about something to use it as proof that they're right when it actually proves the exact opposite. It also struck me just how effective that yelling can be in serving as a distraction.

Case in point:  Maher and the panel were arguing about taxes, the deficit, and government revenue. There was one reality-based person on the panel and two Republican ideologues. The reich-wingers were busy spouting the line about the incredible tax burden we all suffer under now, that the evil, evil tax-and-spend Democrats are crushing the economy with taxes, and that if both personal and corporate income taxes were rolled back to essentially nothing, all would be well. Maher, of course, countered with the truth: tax rates now are the lowest they've been in many, many decades. Inevitably, of course, at some point the holy name of St. Ronald of Reagan was invoked.

Maher was trying to make the point that tax rates were higher under Reagan than they are now. The reich wingers immediately started shouting about how government revenues were higher under Reagan and were going on and on and on about how this proved that Republican economic policies work. Lots of shouting, lots of people trying to talk over each other, and no one recognizing the obvious: there was more money coming in because the government was asking for it. Higher rates -- higher revenues. And the economy was humming along just fine, more or less. If higher tax rates under Reagan helped business, why would higher tax rates hurt  business now?

I really shouldn't watch any of these shows where Republicans are given a chance to try to use a set of facts as proof of the exact opposite. It's too frustrating -- Maher was trying (he was pretty blunt in yelling Bullshit!), but when you've got two idiots yelling that Up is Down, Black is White, and shit can flow uphill, their volume drowns out the voice of reason pretty fast.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Second chances

As I've gone through life, there have been a number of opportunities I've blown. Usually they're just gone, no do-overs, no mulligans. Last week, though, I experienced an exception:  a second visit to Hot Springs, a slight detour on the way from the Retirement Bunker to the Younger Daughter's domicile in east Texas so the S.O. could catch a quick glimpse of Hot Springs National Park and maybe understand why I always liked going there for work. The detour meant, of course, a second shot at the gift shop at the Alligator Farm:
Odd how not indulging in a cheap souvenir can eat at a person after a few weeks of noticing how empty the rear window shelf in the car looks without a bobblehead. I got a green one.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Taking a break

I've escaped from Atlanta for a few days. Posting will be sparse.

Photo is part of Bond Falls, in Ontonagon County, Michigan, on a gorgeous October afternoon (yesterday).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The two-cent solution

Dealing with my fat cat's health problems reminded me again of just how lucky I am to have a decent job. I was talking with the Younger Daughter last night, and she mentioned that where she lives in rural east Texas, most of her co-workers would say the solution to Cleo's diabetes would involve a walk in the woods and cost a mere two cents. Twenty-two shells are cheap.

The lead pill cure isn't one either the Y.D. or I would consider for one of our pets unless the beast was clearly suffering and euthanasia was justified, but it occurred to me that if I wasn't working for Large Nameless Agency, Cleo's options would be much more limited. What would have happened if, after looking the cat over and doing the lab work, the veterinarian handed me the bill and I couldn't pay it?  For that matter, would I have brought her to the veterinarian at all? I knew walking in the clinic door that I was about to drop at least $100 because they were going to have to do lab work of some sort. I can see where if my budget was tighter, I would have worried about her -- why is she drinking all that water? And what's with the polyuria? -- but unless she acted a lot sicker, I would have just waited and hoped that whatever was wrong would cure itself on its own.

In short, I would have treated the cat the same way I would have treated myself back in the days when the budget was a lot tighter and I didn't have health insurance. I would have waited and worried and hoped that whatever the problem was went away on its own. People who can't afford to take care of themselves sure as heck can't afford medical care for their pets -- which is another one of those hidden costs of poverty that most of us never think about. Things that the comfortable middle class (assuming such a thing still exists) take for granted, like the ability of your kids or yourself to have pets, become unaffordable luxuries when your income drops. Not only does the companion animal itself cost money (food, various supplies like collars, leashes, litterboxes, etc.), the lower your income is, the harder it becomes to find a place to live that will allow you to have one. One of the side effects of the economy tanking and foreclosures climbing was that animal shelters became overloaded with abandoned pets as people made the disheartening discovery that when they went from being homeowners to tenants, there were no rentals available that would allow them to keep the family dog.

In the larger scheme of things, when people are worried about keeping a roof over their heads or managing to feed the family for another month, I suppose thinking about poverty being a barrier to pet ownership is rather trivial. On the other hand, considering the numerous well-known benefits, both psychological and physical, of having companion animals, it is a shame that pets are just one more thing that poor people aren't supposed to have.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The obesity epidemic and its consequences

Behold Cleo, the diabetic cat. Her indoor, sedentary lifestyle has caught up with her. Insulin, twice a day. The weird thing (from my perspective) is the way she's oblivious to the needle. Just pinch the skin and shove it in -- and she doesn't even twitch an ear. Amazing.

As cats go, Cleo has never been a glutton -- she actually doesn't eat much, but she's definitely got that "thrifty" gene. When we've lived where she could be an outside cat, she was solid but not fat. As soon as she's indoors only, she porks up. So now she's on the prescription special (aka hideously expensive) cat chow for felines with diabetes, along with a strict feeding schedule and twice daily injections. The veterinarian did say it's fairly common for cats to stop needing the insulin after a few months and manage with just the special (hideously expensive) cat food. I can hope. The cat food is pricey; the insulin might as well come in solid gold vials. I'm also thinking that once she's back in Michigan and able to be out and about and chasing chipmunks again, she'll drop a few pounds, which should help get her blood sugar under control -- although I don't know how enthusiastic she's going to be about going outside once there's snow on the ground.  

As a side note, one of the odder (from my perspective) things I noticed yesterday at PetSmart was the variety of canned prescription pet foods. Did you know you can buy canned dog food that is 100% venison? Unreal.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Weirdness at work

It was a fairly strange week at work. The evacuation of the building has begun, the great migration to other locations  triggered by the Director's decision to not renew the lease on space in buildings in one particular office park. There had been some quiet shuffling as various work groups started packing up their files, emptying their cubicles, and vanishing, but it was subtle. One day there'd be someone in a cubicle; the next day he'd be gone. Those of us whose moves are scheduled for later in the fall did not, however, expect to witness the cubicles themselves being disassembled and hauled out the door. It was an odd feeling trying to work while in the not-too-distant background it sounded like the building was being demolished.

It was a bit intriguing to see just how much crap people had left behind in cubicles, the stuff they didn't feel like moving or actively throwing away: zillions of 3-ring binders, for example, and lots and lots of highlighters. There were several really large bins full of miscellaneous junk that's probably going to vanish into a government warehouse and grow dust for decades, although I suppose it could show up at a GSA surplus sale as "miscellaneous office supplies."

Then, as the week progressed, I got to witness as one of my colleagues, a person who always has had a TMI problem, not only shot herself in the foot, so to speak, but managed to throw our team lead under the bus in the process. It was bizarre. The team lead made it clear this was a favor, please don't mention it to anyone, and what does the co-worker do? Over-shares, as usual, and, even worse, over-shares with the one person who should have been kept in the dark. I found out about it only because my team lead came to me needing to talk to someone because she was so upset -- the tire tracks on her back were still smoking.

I've never understood the compulsion some people have to over-share, to indulge in confessions long before the figurative cattle prod  or bamboo splinters are in the room, but this colleague does it all the time: babbles on and on until a confession has been made to violating some agency convention or OPM rule. Once the transgression is out in the open, of course, what's a manager supposed to do? If it's strictly verbal, you can kind of cringe and pretend you didn't hear it, especially if it's something relatively minor (e.g., taking a longer lunch break than the officially allotted time) and doesn't impact work overall. But when the person is dumb enough to put it into an e-mail? And then copy people higher up the food chain than just our immediate supervisors? Why not just start wearing a tee-shirt with PLEASE FIRE ME printed on it in giant letters?

As for my team lead, my advice to her was to tell the people higher up the food chain that we think a medication our co-worker is currently taking is causing a few odd cognitive side effects. It is a medication that does have confusion and memory loss as documented problems, so maybe they'll buy the notion that the woman was temporarily confused . . . if only because by pretending that's true, they can avoid having to do anything about the team lead bending the rules a tad when she probably shouldn't have.

Oh well. . . fairly soon nothing that happens in the office will be much of an issue for me. I'll have to go back to watching Jerry Springer for entertainment. I've completed most of the paperwork requesting a telework arrangement, have started packing up the apartment, and should be back in Michigan by Halloween. I know there are things I'm going to miss about Atlanta (the ready availability of Mexican Coke, the DeKalb County library system), but being in an actual office at LNA isn't one of them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Depressing stuff heard on the news

Mexico's economy is in much better shape than ours. Their unemployment rate is below 6%, and, with the exception of the sections of the country along the U.S.-Mexican border where drug cartels are killing people, the country is thriving. If it's been looking like the numbers of day laborers hanging out at Home Depot have been shrinking lately, don't credit Immigration and Customs Enforcement for doing its job -- undocumented immigrants are heading back to Oaxaca and Michoacan on their own.

Why is the Mexican economy doing so well while the rest of the world is still reeling from a recession? One reason is banking regulations. Apparently about 30 years ago Mexico went through a financial crisis that caused the government and the banking system there to re-evaluate how to do business. They actually learned something from their mistakes. End result? They didn't get sucked into the global financial meltdown that hit every place else when financial bubbles started bursting on Wall Street here in the U.S.

You know, when Mexico starts looking a lot better than the U.S., you know for sure the slide into third world nationhood is accelerating.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Working hard or hardly working?

This week is Georgia Telework Week. Georgia's governor actually did something reasonably sane (or at least innocuous) not long ago, and signed a proclamation declaring September 11 through the 17th Georgia Telework Week. Employers are supposed to encourage workers who can do so to work from home. Large Nameless Agency announced it was encouraging all division managers to have everyone who could telework do it for two days. Sounded good to me.

So here I am, at home, in my jammies and bunny slippers, so to speak, "teleworking." Or I would be if I had anything to do. In one of those typical feast or famine situations LNA is so good at creating, I have no work to do. I'm caught up. If I were sitting in the office, I'd be doing almost the same thing I'm doing here -- wandering around the Intertubes, playing an occasional game of Sudoku, and maybe writing a personal letter or two, but with the additional factor of being grateful my monitor isn't visible from the office doorway. I've always thought teleworking would be a good thing to do -- after all, I can do nothing at home and get paid for it as easily as I can do nothing in the office for 8 hours.

I do occasionally wonder how one of my colleagues manages to stay sane. He's fast, too, and is always well ahead of the production schedule. The issue we're supposedly halfway into editing right now is November, but, like me, I know this guy is already into his January assignments (all one of them, at this point; the Editor in Chief needs to pick up the pace on accepting stuff). I think he meditates a lot -- or has mastered the art of sleeping with his eyes open. There are times when I wander past his office, glance in, and he's sitting there in some sort of trance, looking like an android where someone's flipped the switch to Off. I at least keep a stash of magazines in a filing cabinet so there's always a copy of Orion or Smithsonian to fall back on. I don't think my colleague does.

I'm never really sure if the reason I manage to stay ahead of the game when it comes to work is because I'm halfway good at what I do and reasonably efficient, or if I'm really, really bad. The performance reviews we get at work are completely meaningless, so who knows? The criteria for "fully successful" are all purely subjective; there are no metrics. I do know I tend to edit light -- I don't change an author's words just because I would have said something differently; as long as a sentence is understandable and grammatically correct, I'm probably going to leave it alone -- but I also know that I see stuff, major howlers, that my colleagues missed in galleys . . . and they all supposedly agonize over an article for many days before deciding it's ready for production. I never agonize. I figure if the authors are happy with what they see in the edited proofs, it's good to go -- it's going to be their names on the title page, not mine, and I have no desire to step on their voice.

At least with the journal, the gaps with no work whatsoever are fairly short. We're a monthly, stuff comes in all the time, the lulls are relatively infrequent. That wasn't true of my first two years at LNA. I was assigned to a workgroup in the writer-editor services branch (which no longer exists, but that's another story) to work as an "author's editor." LNA has a policy that every article for external publication, every research piece the scientists submit to journals like the New England Journal of Medicine, Clinical Infectious Diseases, etc., has to be checked by an actual editor before it can be cleared for submission. They want to be sure that not only is the science accurate, but that LNA's researchers aren't going to embarrass themselves with bad writing. It was not a bad gig, I got to read some interesting material, but the work flow was totally dependent on when/if LNA researchers submitted something for clearance and requested editorial services. I'd get one thing at a time, for example, a 2500 word article on tuberculosis and drug resistance, and be told I had three weeks in which to edit it. Three weeks! To check a ten page paper. It was a project that in most cases could be done in a few hours -- a full day at best. I never did milk those projects for the full time allotted, but I also never turned them in as soon as I finished them. I've had tadpoles before, and I know how production quotas work. Besides, you never know when you're going to get handed something that's sufficiently nasty that it really does take ten times longer to finish than you thought it would. 

In any case, I'd finish a project, let my team lead know I was ready for something else. . . and then I'd sit. . . and sit. . . and sit. . . day after day waiting for something else to land in the In Box. There is a reason I became the Sudoku Queen of Corporate Square. When the journal advertised for a copy editor, all the experienced editors in my work group, including my team lead, told me not to apply. "They work really, really hard over there." "The deadline pressure is horrible." "They're just overwhelmed all the time; they can't keep up." It sounded pretty damn good compared to being paid to sit and stare at cubicle walls 8 hours a day.

The work load is a little heavier, but it's also totally predictable -- the journal is a monthly, so we all know that every month each copy editor will have a minimum of 7 articles to edit, more likely 8 or 9, and that we all have one or two other responsibilities. As publications go, we don't have a particularly brutal production schedule, nor are we understaffed, at least not on the copyediting side. It's pretty easy to keep up with the pace of production once you're oriented to the schedule. The only mystery is how good or bad the articles will be, i.e., how much clean-up will they need. Some research shops run like well-oiled machines -- their principal investigator has overseen enough submissions to our journal that the papers come in formatted exactly the way our style dictates; they're close to publishable without us doing a thing other than running it through our software for formatting. Others are a mess. I've seen a few where the initial impression is "This is written in Klingon." Most fall somewhere in between. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Not exactly an urban homesteader

It's almost harvest time on the patio, and about all I can say about this year's results is it's a good thing we don't have to rely on our container gardening for survival. I managed to kill most of the plants by going on vacation for a little too long ("mummified" would be an apt description for what greeted me when I returned from Michigan in June), and the sole pepper plant to survive has managed to produce a grand total of six, count'em, six peppers to date. It bloomed a lot, but all the polinators were apparently far too busy up in the mimosa to bother with a mere pepper plant at ground level.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Summer is officially over

. . . at least up on the tundra. The 2011-2012 snowplowing bill for the driveway at the Retirement Bunker arrived today.
The photo is an old one. Here's a view in the summer of more or less that same stretch of driveway 30+ years later. Rewilding in action.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hot Springs National Park

Spending the Labor Day weekend at Hot Springs National Park was a mini-vacation I approached with a fair amount of trepidation as the time grew closer. Hot Springs was one of my favorite parks back when I worked for NPS, and I was a little worried that maybe talking it up to the Younger Daughter was a mistake. We had agreed to meet there for the weekend, and I'd sent her some links for typical Hot Springs activities (e.g., the thermal baths). I also booked us into one of the historic hotels downtown, the Arlington, and it began to worry me that maybe she wouldn't be as charmed by its aura of faded grandeur as I was.
I worried for nothing. We had a great time. Our room in the Arlington was lovely; we were on the 7th floor so the outdoor mountainside pool was just a short walk away. We were also right across the street from Arlington Lawn, part of the national park. We were ambling distance from both Bathhouse Row and all the commercial stuff that might interest us (e.g., restaurants) The national park was even nicer than I remembered--park management does a superb job on maintenance--and the ambience overall was Hot Springs at its liveliest. I think the city would have been bustling anyway because of Labor Day weekend, but the Blues Festival happening that weekend probably added to the crowds and fun. One of the great things about Hot Springs is you can go from enjoying the outdoors--the National Park includes several thousand acres of woodland with miles of hiking trails of varying difficulty--to enjoying the nightlife without much of a break in between. Personally, I'm not much of a clubber, but I can certainly see the attraction for people who do enjoy partying.
Hot Springs is, of course, famous for its hot springs, and there are several venues where it is possible to enjoy a traditional thermal bath. One of the historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, the Buckstaff, has been providing traditional thermal baths for many years. The traditional experience included a hot soak followed by massage, but could turn into a long, elaborate ritual with steam cabinets, cold cabinets, hot packs, cold packs, and multiple soaks in the thermal mineral water. It's been considerably abbreviated in recent decades. I always kind of wonder about the Buckstaff because it's strictly walk-in--no advance reservations--but I'm told that it truly provides the traditional Hot Springs experience (and that in turn evokes images of burly peasant women beating the crap out of the massage victim while reassuring him or her that being kneaded like a loaf of pumpernickel will cure whatever ails them; maybe on a return trip I'll have the courage to find out).

Another of the bathhouses, the Quapaw (the domed building in the photo above) was renovated fairly recently and offers both a thermal waters experience and a more typical modern spa experience (i.e., your choice of massages, like hot stone or Swedish, and the ever-popular "couples massage."). For a mere $18, a person can soak in a large communal pool, basically an oversized (and gorgeously tiled) hot tub filled with the mineral water from the springs, or they can spend more money and have a more private experience at the Quapaw. In addition to the bathhouses right on Bathhouse Row, several hotels have thermal baths that allow a person to indulge in the traditional soak in remarkably hot mineral water, as well as offering massages and other spa services.
I was really happy to see the Quapaw operating. Another of the bathhouses, the Ozark, has been renovated for adaptive re-use as an art museum, and a third that had been totally vacant the last time I was in Hot Springs now has a cafe and small specialized bookstore. The bathhouses are nifty structures, with each one done in a different style than the others, and a few have some really over-the-top architectural details, so I hope the park superintendent can manage to find some other suitable tenants to help with the maintenance costs for these gorgeous money pits. 

In short, a great park, a fun place to visit, and definitely worth multiple return visits.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Travel tip of the day

If you decide to do a weekend getaway to a hotel that's high and dry and well removed from nasty weather, and you see on the Weather Channel that a slow-moving tropical storm has plans to meander through the area between that high and dry hotel and the city where you live, it might be a good idea to spring for an extra night instead of convincing yourself it's real important to get home on schedule . . . just to give aforementioned tropical storm another day or two to move on down the road.

Driving through Birmingham, Alabama, yesterday while the city was getting slammed by tropical storm Lee is not one of the smarter things I have done.

[Photo from a news report from Birmingham from right about the time I was being dumb enough to try to turn my car into an amphibious vehicle yesterday.]

Saturday, August 27, 2011

It must have been the curry

Now I know how the patients in the case reports I edit must feel.

Gastroenteritis. Killer gastroenteritis. Enteritis that had me perched on the throne for hours on end clutching a wastebasket, losing it from both ends,  thinking this was going to be a remarkably undignified way to die* and wondering just how long it would be before anyone discovered the body. How many times would the phone go unanswered before the S.O. called the manager to ask him to check on me? He's still up at the retirement bunker, and we're past the stage in our relationship where we feel the need to talk to each other every day just to hear each other breathe.

Until last night I didn't know it was possible to puke so violently it could feel like I was going to break a rib or two in the process. To say I feel purged. . . there's definitely no excess choler** left in my system at the moment.

Odds are I got hit by a norovirus, but the question is from what? Much as I'd like to blame the curry because it was the last thing I ate, I know the time lag between it and the near death experience was too short. Norovirus causes most gastroenteritis, but it usually takes 24 hours or longer from exposure before the symptoms kick in. The other possibility would be a staph infection from my yogurt, but that just seems so highly unlikely. . .

On the other hand, symptoms for an enteric staph infection do include rapid onset and lightheadedness -- and lightheadedness and dizziness were actually the first two things to hit. And the good news is that whatever it was appears to have come and gone fairly quickly, also typical of enteric staph. I fell asleep wondering if I was going to have stagger down the hall one more time, and woke up 6 hours later feeling more or less human -- although my throat does feel like it was sandpapered.

*Ancient joke: I want to go peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car. . .

** From the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, written in the 12th century:

If Choller do exceed, as may sometime,
Your eares will ring, and make you to be wakefull,
Your tongue will seeme all rough, and oftentimes
Cause vomits, unaccustomed and hatefull,
Great thirst, your excrements are full of slime,
The stomacke squeamish, sustenance ungratefull,
Your appetite will seeme in nought delighting,
Your heart still greeued with continuall byting,
The pulse beate hard and swift, all hot, extreame,

Your spittle soure, of fire-worke oft you dreame.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Where's my wallet?

Saw this over at the Rude Pundit. Definitely a step above "Homeless - Please Help."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

How poor is poor enough?

Okay. I had said I wasn't going to think about politics, policy, or bloviating tinfoil hat types this weekend. I was going to purge my mind of all bad thoughts and just go to a happy place for a day or two. Then I made my usual weekend mistake. I turned on C-SPAN.

First up after open phones? A person from the Heritage Foundation who, in essence, was saying it's okay to shred social safety nets because you know what? Poor people in this country aren't really poor. Most of them are still living indoors and enjoying the benefits of being able to refrigerate perishable food. Jon Stewart ripped into this report a few nights ago on the Daily Show, and other bloggers have been going after it since these talking points started making the rounds on Hannity et al. -- "hey, the poor aren't that bad off -- they're not openly starving." "Instead of worrying about all those poor people, we should be proud that our poor people would be considered upper middle class in Europe."

You know what the Heritage mouthpiece was apparently basing a fair amount of that last bit of truly bizarre reasoning on? The fact that Europeans don't live in McMansions -- the average square footage of the typical European home is considerably smaller than that of the typical American (this isn't exactly news to anyone who's ever watched "Househunters International," although the American obsession with the en suite bathrooms and double sink vanities is creeping into newer construction globally). The fact that most European cities are really, really old compared to American ones and have always had to deal with higher population densities couldn't possibly have affected construction or living spaces -- the difference is solely the result of Americans always being better off than anyone else anywhere on the planet. We are number one. Even our poor people live in castles. And pigs can fly.

The other thing that struck me was that once again all the demographic information provided tended to be about minorities (x% of African Americans are poor, x% of Hispanics) without mentioning at all what percentage of the overall population those groups consitute provided more evidence that the reich wing loves to play to the racist fears of its base. You know, if one out of every 3 African Americans lives in poverty, but African Americans are only 12% of the total US population, that would make them a pretty tiny percentage of the folks relying on Food Stamps or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Ditto Hispanics -- if they're now 14% of the total US population, and they have a poverty rate similar to African Americans, then it's about the same -- 4 to 5% of the total persons in poverty. So if you take that 4% plus 5% and maybe round it up to 10% to allow for other nonwhite groups (Native Americans, for example), that would mean 9 out of every 10 people who are poor are also white. Ninety percent of the useless slackers on the dole, the folks too lazy to pull themselves up by their bootstraps because they're too busy enjoying the good life with their refrigerated food, are not minorities. [Note: percentages for US population breakdown are from the 2010 Census, and I remember the Reptile person saying 33% of blacks live in poverty. Hispanics are a guess, so consider the numbers theoretical. Bottom line is still that most poor people are white, but no one wants to admit that -- and the MSM cooperates in perpetuating the illusion only minorities are poor by almost always focusing on blacks or Hispanics when it covers anything related to programs like WIC or Food Stamps.]

I am totally convinced the Reptile people want to turn this country into Haiti. Or worse. This latest set of "fuck the poor, they're not all dying from starvation yet" propagandizing did nothing to change my mind.

Trying not to think about politics

Instead I'm going to focus on the fact my cactus is blooming for the first time in about 12 years. It hasn't been particularly healthy looking since it got hit with overspray when the painters did the outside of the patio fence 4 years ago, but nonetheless this year it decided to bloom. I'm going to take this as a sign it's looking forward to leaving Atlanta as much as I am.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Large Nameless Agency about to star in movie

If this trailer has me thinking about living in a bubble and never talking to another human being, I wonder just how frightening the movie itself is going to be? They did actually film a scene or two here at LNA, so I'm a tad curious as to what the film itself will be like. Supposedly no zombies, though, which I'm sure is going to disappoint many audience members.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The place no one is supposed to know about

I found this photo while going through some files from my NPS days. The site is in a remote location, relatively inaccessible and out of the way in a park I'm not going to name, and is one of those things that's kind of sliding into local folklore, the tiny concrete village that looks as though Smurfs have set up housekeeping in the wilderness.
I wonder if it's still there? It's been about 7 years since I last saw it, and rumor had it that if the park superintendent ever figured out where it was, those tiny Smurf houses would become mobile homes.

And I've always also wondered about who'd take the time to backpack in either sacks of Quickcrete or shoebox-sized house-shaped lumps of solid concrete, but people have carried stranger things while camping.

Another reason to stick with the dead tree editions

Sunday, August 14, 2011

One less clown in the car

I just heard via C-SPAN that Tim Pawlenty has dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. I'm not sure if the proper response is relief or regret. Pawlenty never gained much traction, probably because he comes close to being sane. At this point in the competition, the loonier the candidate, the more the extremist wing of the Republican party seems to love that person. End result? Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll.

Pultizer Project: The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936-1941: The Grapes of Wrath, The Harvest Gypsies, The Long Valley, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Library of America)Okay, it's confession time. I found another Pultizer winner that I flat out could not finish. Maybe my mistake was checking out a collected works book instead of the novel by itself, because by the time I got through the short stories I was already feeling less than enthusiastic about Steinbeck's work. People trapped in loveless marriages, murders, infidelities, beautiful women who turn out to be really, really creepy. . . There is a lot of misogynism in Steinbeck's work, and sometimes it's really thinly veiled. And then I got to the Dust Bowl and the Joads.

The Grapes of Wrath has a plot line that most people are familiar with: the Joads are a poor tenant farm family from Oklahoma that get pushed off the land when drought hits in the 1930s. Like many of their contemporaries, they decide to head for California in search of jobs. Much suffering ensues. Elderly grandparents drop dead along the way (shades of Imogene Coca vacationing with Chevy Chase), husbands abandon wives and kids, babies are stillborn, and conditions in general are horrific.

Of course, the reader is warned up front this is going to be a grim, grim book: the first chapter is devoted to detailed descriptions of the corn dying from lack of rain, and even the weeds giving up and shriveling into dust. Then we're introduced to young Tom Joad, an obnoxious ex-con and a drunk. Turns out Tom's just been turned loose early from the state penitentiary where he'd been serving time for a homicide. It's pretty obvious the Joads' lives were a tragedy long before the Dust Bowl hit; the migration to California and the hell they experience there is just the latest in a long series of bad things they've suffered through.

I think I could have coped with the initially repellant characters like young Tom Joad and the grimness if Steinbeck hadn't decided to indulge in writing dialect. Why, oh, why do some authors seem to think it adds authenticity to have their poor or their ethnic characters speak in dialect?! Maybe the author thought it would make it seem more like a novel and less like propaganda if he added a layer of color to the narrative. I don't recall Steinbeck indulging in dialect in other books, like East of Eden, so maybe he outgrew it. Some authors can pull it off, but in this particular book all the folkiness and dropped consonants did was add another layer of distraction. I was having a hard time focusing on the book to begin with, the dialect made it worse, and eventually I gave up. Given the general downward trend of the Joads (see above for dying grandparents, broken marriages, etc.), I figured the book was going to end with the Joads trying to do the 1930s version of surviving in a refrigerator box under an overpass -- and I didn't need to read any farther to figure out that migrant workers get treated like shit, California was not the promised land, capitalism sucks, and unions (in the field or in the factory) are a good thing.  

Next up, yet another book I'd never heard of before by an equally unknown (at least to me) author, In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Maybe we're really going to do it this time

We've set dates for the move back north several times since first landing in Atlanta in 2007, but this is the first time I've started selling the furniture as that date grew closer. I'm advertising on an electronic bulletin board at work -- I was a little skeptical about how effective that method would be, but I think it's going to depend on the specific item. I tried selling a china cabinet that way a couple years ago and had no luck, but this time around a small chest of drawers had potential buyers in less than 2 hours. I had to scramble after work to get the thing emptied before the buyers came over to pick it up.

I'm going to try advertising the china cabinet again. It's not really my style, but, like most of our furniture, it was a yard sale find that I figured would serve its purpose until I found the mid-century modern cabinet of my dreams. If it doesn't sell this time around, it's going to Goodwill, along with a number of other items that we won't have a use for at the retirement bunker. Moving is always a giant pain in the ass, so the less that we actually have to schlep on to the U-Haul, the better.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why are we Americans such sniveling cowards?

I know this isn't a new question -- I've posed it before, and so have quite a few other people. It's even the underlying theme of Michael Moore's movie Bowling for Columbine: the typical white American wanders around scared shitless most of the time, totally convinced the world is full of people whose only goal is to invade his home, steal his worthless tchotchkes, rape his womenfolk, and probably abuse his dog while they're at it.

I was reminded of this pervasive paranoia recently when I read an account on one of the blogs I occasionally wander through about an incident occurring on the opening night of the Wisconsin state fair in West Allis a few days ago. As fairgoers left the grounds, a group of young thugs began assaulting some of them. Depending on the news account, it was described as a flash mob, a mini riot, a group mugging, and so on. Bottom line: you had a group of young thugs briefly running wild. No one's sure just how many thugs there were because it was the middle of the night, it happened fast, and people's impressions were confused (aided, no doubt, by the fact the Wisconsin State Fair has some wonderful beer gardens). Overall, the experience was frightening -- no one expects to have someone try to snatch your purse or knock you down as you're leaving a fairgrounds in suburban Milwaukee -- but injuries appear to have been minor and the total number of victims rather small, especially considering some of the initial hysteria following the news reports.

So how did the blogger who relayed this story respond to it? He's going to make damn sure he's carrying a gun the next time he goes to Wisconsin. WTF? A one-time incident with a handful of young punks means the entire state, cows and all, is now too dangerous to enter without loaded gun in hand? Does he think he's going to get mugged at a rest stop on his way to the Dells?  I then found myself thinking about the young guy who was on jury duty with me back in 2009.

This was a young man, probably early 30s, who was at least six feet tall, not an ounce of flab on him (not quite a gym rat bod, but definitely physically fit), who in the world of potential targets for muggings might as well have had a flashing neon sign over his head screaming Not Worth the Risk. He was probably the least likely person in Atlanta to ever have to deal with some young punk demanding his wallet. But it came out in conversation that he was both a major believer in the right to concealed carry and nervous as heck about having to walk from his car to the courthouse unarmed because "you never know what type of people will be around a courthouse." (Yeah, like cops. Sheriff's deputies. Bailiffs. And maybe people in handcuffs.) He was afraid to walk half a block in downtown Decatur without a gun. In the middle of the day! He probably didn't appreciate me laughing at him.

He also treated us to a long monologue about how he'd absolutely never take MARTA any place because it's just too dangerous, and he and his wife live in a gated community and don't understand how anyone could live in some of the old neighborhoods in Atlanta where you're right on a public street and "anyone can drive right by." It was bizarre. He didn't look certifiable, but he certainly had a fine case of galloping paranoia.

I don't get it. What are people afraid of? If you look around, how many armed robbers or home invaders has the average person actually encountered? Answer: zero. Everyone interacts with hundreds, maybe thousands of people, on a casual basis every day -- passing them on the sidewalks in cities, seeing them in grocery stores and shopping malls, working in a building with many, many people -- and none of those strangers tries to rob you or make your life miserable. What are the odds that you're going to encounter the one lone nut who's going to want your wallet? Minuscule to nonexistent. And, if you do encounter that nut, what's wrong with just handing the money over? Why would you want to take a chance on channeling your inner Wyatt Earp and possibly dying in the process over something as replaceable as a few credit cards or some cash?

The thing that I find the strangest is that it's usually the people who have never had anything bad happen who seem to worry the most and want to carry the biggest guns. They've never been burglarized, but they're convinced their house is so full of good stuff that some one's going to want it. They've never been mugged, but they flinch every time they pass a stranger on the street. They live out in the middle of nowhere, some tiny town in a rural state, but are convinced "terrorists" are going to target the local feed store. It's bizarre, narcissism and paranoia in one neat package.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Reincarnation?

Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (Signature)A week or so ago I finished reading Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. After learning more about Hoover, I found myself thinking that if the birth and death dates were just a little bit different, Barack Obama would have me believing in reincarnation. It would be such a handy explanation. Unfortunately, President Obama was born over 3 years before President Hoover died, so it's just coincidence they have so much in common.

Some of the similarities are obvious, although ideologically Hoover was a lot farther to the left than Obama. Hoover, for example, thought inherited wealth posed a major threat to the well-being of the country and pushed for high inheritance taxes to help break up great fortunes. He was against tax cuts for millionaires and pushed for lower taxes for workers on the low end of the economic scale. He supported unions -- he had the entire press run of a Republican publication destroyed when he learned it was printed in a nonunion shop -- and agreed with the concept of a minimum wage. He had an extremely dim view of banks and bankers, and was constantly battling Wall Street. He was a pacifist and not overly fond of the military -- one of his goals following World War I was arms reduction. He was, in short, an old-fashioned progressive Republican back when the Republicans were still sane.  If that was the aspect of Hoover that Obama was channeling, I think I'd be happy.

Unfortunately, Obama seems to have decided some of Hoover's other attributes are the ones to emulate. Hoover was a great believer in cooperation, especially after the great success he'd had with relief efforts in Belgium during World War I and in Europe overall immediately after the war. He truly believed that if you appealed to people's better natures, they'd come through. Businessmen would do the right thing because it was the right thing and not because they were forced to through regulation. As the Depression worsened and banks began to fail, Hoover resisted government intervention and instead appealed to the business community to think of the greater good of the country. The country was circling the drain, and Hoover was hesitant to take any direct federal action. Shades of Obama trying to be reasonable and craft a bipartisan agreement on the budget, the debt ceiling, and everything else.

The end result, of course, is that by the time Hoover left office he was thoroughly reviled. He'd been elected as a hero but went home to California 4 years later with his reputation in shreds. He'd had good intentions, he wanted to do the right thing, but most of his efforts can be summed up simply as "Too little, too late." Sound familiar?

I did find myself wondering if the similarities in their backgrounds had anything to do with similarities in their political style. Although Hoover did know both his parents, he was orphaned young -- his father died when Hoover was 6, and his mother passed away barely 3 years later, leaving Hoover totally dependent on the goodwill of various relatives. Obama didn't know his father, and his mother was absent for long periods of time in his youth. Like Hoover, Obama was dependent on the goodwill of relatives. If you spend your formative years feeling like you've got to keep everyone around you happy, maybe, just maybe, you're going to grow up to be someone with the negotiating skills of a marshmallow.

Incidentally, one thing that's always puzzled me about the Hoover administration was the debacle with the "bonus army." The US army commander, Douglas MacArthur, had been ordered not to march on the encampment. He did anyway, in direct violation of his orders, and Hoover failed to reprimand him. It left many people with the impression that Hoover had approved the brutal attack that left hundreds of civilians injured. End result, of course, is that over time it's Hoover's name that's become irrevocably linked with the mess, not MacArthur's. The book, unfortunately, didn't devote much page space to it -- I had to turn to Wikipedia for enough background to understand just what the issue was that caused the bonus army to assemble in Washington to begin with. Herbert Hoover: A Public Life provides a lot of detail about Hoover's life right up to the Presidency but then turns remarkably thin. Very strange, considering that one would think that the Presidency was the most important part of Hoover's career and it's Hoover's actions (or inactions) as President that are remembered today.