Friday, January 31, 2014

One for the Rat

I do wonder which one of his meds he stopped taking.

The lost art of conversation

We seem to be devolving into a nation of people who have lost the ability to talk with each other. We want validation, not discussion. We make statements but don't want questions or comments that suggest less than 100 percent agreement with whatever it is we've said. It doesn't matter if the topic is one that's potentially contentious (e.g., politics) or totally innocuous (a purchase from Menard's). If someone asks a question, the original speaker freaks out. It's a personal attack. The questioner is being an elitist, a jerk, a socialist, a fascist, or whatever the preferred insult of the day is. Or, and I really don't get how this is supposed to be an insult, it's "an attempt to start an argument."

Well, what's wrong with that? Healthy debate is how we learn stuff. And it doesn't even have to be actual debate -- just kicking different ideas around, different perspectives on a topic where you're basically in agreement but coming at it from slightly different angles can be good. Besides, if you're secure in your knowledge, happy with whatever it is you may have said, why should you feel defensive about it? Why assume that if someone is less than effusive in their praise of your opinion that you're being attacked? People used to be able to have discussions, debates, arguments, whatever, without participants reacting as though their interlocutors were attacking them personally. You could ask someone why they supported a particular position, whether it was a model of car they'd bought or a choice of a political candidate, without that person freaking out and accusing you of trying to start a fight or calling them stupid.

Should I blame the Internet? It can do a lot of damage. It's real easy to find yourself a bunch of cheerleaders when you're wandering around Facebook or the blogosphere. There are lots of what the S.O. refers to as "circle jerk echo chambers" available. Don't want to think too hard about anything? Just find groups where everyone agrees with you, whether it's which NASCAR drivers are total asshats or where Barack Obama was actually born. Have a weak ego? Start a blog and then chase away anyone who says stuff that isn't some variation on you're so wonderful and everything you say is a sparkling pearl of wisdom.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


We ice danced our way up to Marquette yesterday to have some work done on my computer. The CMOS battery had been showing signs of failing for awhile, one of those things that's an annoyance as it's happening because you have to keep resetting the time and date. I'm not sure just what happens if the battery goes completely dead -- you find yourself doing a total reboot every time you turn the machine on? I know you end up having to confirm your hardware settings every time, but I'm not sure if anything that rises above the level of "annoying" actually happens. Anyway, replacing the battery is supposedly fairly easy in some computers: you slip the case off and there the battery is, out in the open and easily removed. Not with my PC. It's a compact desktop, a device that's about the same size as a copy of Dorland's Medical Dictionary. It's one of those machines that is really nice to have because of the small footprint but a pain to try doing anything to if you're not a genuine computer geek: everything is crammed together without a whole lot of maneuvering room. You definitely need skinny fingers and great eye-hand coordination to work on the thing.

When we took the case off to look for the battery, the S.O. and I couldn't see where it was. That's when I decided I'd let the the Geek Squad deal with it. I have a rudimentary knowledge of how a computer works, but I have never been geeky enough to play around with electronics myself. The S.O. is better with a screwdriver than I am, but he's also never been real keen on playing with circuit boards and wiring bundles. My PC may not be the latest or greatest, but it works fine for what I need. I have no plans to replace it as long as I can keep it chugging along without having to spend a whole lot of money. I figured a sure way to guarantee I'd have to replace it in the immediate future would be for me or the S.O. to reach for a screwdriver and start disconnecting pieces/parts now.

Once we got it to Best Buy, it turned out the CMOS battery was buried under the hard drive. A lot of pieces/parts did indeed have to be moved out of the way before the battery itself was accessible.

This was one of those rare moments when I was feeling good about having purchased a product protection/technical support plan. Usually those things are kind of a rip-off, but back in May when I went to Best Buy shopping for a new PC for the museum, I got talked into also buying Geek Squad protection. It means no bench charges. When I had to have the hard drive replaced on this machine in July, all I had to pay for was the actual replacement hard drive, no service charges at all. Having seen what was involved in getting at the battery, I now know for sure that swapping out the hard drive wasn't a super fast process either. The plan has actually paid for itself, which is a pleasant surprise.

And how did I happen to be a position to watch the battery being changed? Because swapping out a CMOS battery is usually fast and easy, the nice young man at Best Buy took the case off at the service counter up front instead of hauling the machine back behind the curtain. He obviously thought it was going to be a simple matter of popping the case off, verifying the type of battery, and within a minute or two being able to hand the machine back to me. No such luck. I got to watch as he exposed everything, briefly evidenced a baffled look, and said, in essence, where the heck is it?! It took a few minutes, but he located it and then began the not-so-fast process of getting other stuff out of the way. Eventually the new battery was in, and the S.O. and I were on our way. Cost of the repair? $6.88.

Referring to the drive up and back as ice dancing is kind of an understatement. I think both the state and the county are running out of sand and salt. There were stretches of M-28 that were many miles long where it was ice from shoulder to shoulder. Fortunately, traffic was light. Winter driving doesn't scare me much, but the other idiots on the road do.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Thinking about donating Grandad's fishing stuff to a museum?

You might want to go through it first to make sure there's nothing stashed in it that you'd prefer the whole world not know about. I was cataloging a stack of odds and ends that included a Helin Tackle Co. pamphlet devoted to explaining the wonders of a Flatfish lure. Something tells me the old dude figured out that his fishing books were one place his significant other would never bother looking for anything risque. This was tucked in the pages:
Definitely an early 1950s classic pose. Of course, back at the time both the picture and the pamphlet were new, the old dude wasn't that old, maybe in his 40s, and obviously interested in more than just fish. 

I have a hunch that one of these days I'll stumble across actual porn, which will then raise some interesting cataloging questions. It would qualify as historic material, but would it be relevant to our museum's mission? And do I bother noting just who made the donation so future generations will know exactly who to thank for the vintage smut? 

Adventures in bureaucracy: the Veterans Administration

The S.O. appears to be trapped in bureaucratic limbo with the V.A. He has a disability claim based on hearing loss wending its way at an arthritic snail's pace through the system. About every 90 days he receives a letter saying "Do not despair, pitiful claimant, we haven't forgotten you." Okay, so maybe they don't actually call him a pitiful claimant (or poor schmuck, an equally appropriate term), but that's the gist of it. Until it's resolved, we're stuck staying close to home. We know from past experience that the claim will go from absolutely nothing apparently happening to a demand being made that he report for a physical to verify the hearing loss ASAP, as close to yesterday as possible, because if you don't make it to that physical, the claim is denied and you get to start the whole sorry process all over again. And if you call to try to reschedule the appointment for the physical, you'll get trapped in the voice mail tree and you're just fucked.

Upside: I should have plenty of time to finish the quilt I'm working on before we go anywhere in the RV.

Downside: We have to cancel the campground hosting gig because it would unfair to wait any longer without letting the park know we can't do it.

Even bigger downside: We could end up stuck here for the entire Mud Season.

As to why he has to go in for an audiology exam to verify partial deafness when it was the VA's medical system that decided he needed hearing aids to begin with? That's just one of life's little mysteries.

It's not just St. Louis

They're freaking out here too. I did a post a couple weeks ago about the absurdity of schools and other organizations closing when the temperatures around here dipped below zero. Well, they're doing it again. The predicted high for today is a negative single digit number, wind chills are going to be nasty, and every single school in the western U.P. is closed. Unbelievable. It's cold, but, Christ on the proverbial crutch, it's not snowing. It's not even that windy. The wind indicator on the weather vane in the front yard is just sitting there, and tree tops are barely moving. Dress the little barracudas in their snowmobile suits, wrap scarves around their heads, and shove them out the door. Either that, or resign your collective selves to having school run into July* because there's a limited number of "snow" days allowed, and all the local schools have pretty much burned through the available supply. There is absolutely no reason to freak out when it's a classic and totally normal Upper Michigan January day: cold enough to castrate brass monkeys, but nothing out of the ordinary for this part of the country at this time of the year.

Or at least it didn't used to be out of the ordinary. Apparently now it is. We've had so many warm winters in a row that when we finally get one that behaves like winter did 20 or 30 years ago, no one can handle it. Back in the 19th century, Bishop Baraga wandered all over the U.P. on snowshoes in some truly godawful weather. He survived without Thinsulate or a climate controlled vehicle; it seems like we modern day Yoopers should be able to cope with a little cold now.

You know what my test is for weather that's cold enough to worry about? It's when I step outside, blink, and my eyelashes freeze together. That hasn't happened yet; when it does, maybe I'll agree it actually is cold.

[*I cheerfully predict that the same parents who don't want their kids going to school now because they're terrified of the wind chill number will be raising hell when it gets to be June and the extended school year interferes with family outings or the kids getting summer jobs.]

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pulitzer Project: Tales of the South Pacific

I seem to be on a roll with the Pulitzer winners. This was the second one in a row that was actually worth reading.

Tales of the South Pacific is one of the Pulitzer winners I could vaguely remember reading many years ago. I didn't really remember much about it, though, so decided to read it again. I'm glad I did. The book is interesting and well written. The book won in 1948 and was the first work of fiction to be honored in the new category of "Fiction" rather than as novel. In fact, I found myself wondering if Tales of the South Pacific was the reason the category's name changed. The book does have a general structure and is organized in a way that might qualify it as a novel, but overall feels a lot more like a short story collection based on a common theme.

Over the years, I've seen so many clips from the musical South Pacific that details of the book itself had faded in my memory. Years of hearing songs like "Some Enchanted Evening," "There's Nothing Like a Dame," and "Happy Talk" made it easy to forget that Michener's work is much more complicated than the stripped down story lines developed for the musical and the movie. In Tales of the South Pacific Michener describes in fairly graphic detail the reality of the war in the Pacific in the months following the battle of the Coral Sea. He also gets into a troublesome subject for the 1940s -- race relations -- and hints at some of the problems the military had with drunks and rapists during the war. It is a much more complex work than the movie would lead one to believe.

Although Tales of the South Pacific is usually described as a novel, it's more like a collection of stories tied together by a common omniscient narrator. The narrator is a Naval officer who gets assigned to essentially be an admiral's errand boy. He shuttles around the theater of operations, spending a few days or weeks in one location and then a few days or weeks in another, as he carries various messages and orders that can't be entrusted to the radio or regular mail. Some of the assignments he enjoys; others he endures. Along the way he meets various characters, both enlisted men and officers, and describes their lives, both good and bad. Some of the men are going quietly (or not so quietly) crazy from the combination of inaction -- waiting for orders to move on to another island -- and the hardships of living in the tropics. Malaria, mysterious rashes, fungus diseases, and killer boredom were not a good combination. Men end up in the brig or committing suicide, crimes are committed, rape or attempted rape of the Navy nurses is appallingly common.

The two characters Michener actually spends the most time with are two men Tony Fry and Bus Adams. Fry is a wheeler dealer noted for his ability to avoid work while at the same time managing to procure supplies for the officers' Wine Mess (which actually served no wine, just hard liquor and beer); Bus is famed for his ability to fly even the shakiest of aircraft into places no one else can go. The narrator's path crosses Tony and Bus's numerous times; sometimes their story line is relatively light-hearted, like when they island hop in search of whiskey for Christmas, at others it takes a more melancholy turn.

The movie focuses on two sets of star-crossed lovers; in the book the two couples -- Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and French plantation owner Emile de Becque and Marine lieutenant Joe Cable and a Tonkinese (ethnic Chinese) woman Liat -- are two small stories that Michener doesn't actually spend much page space on. He also doesn't invest their stories with as much drama as the scripts do. In both cases, the Americans become involved with someone that their long held prejudices tell them is unacceptable. Nellie discovers Emile has children who are half-Polynesian and she's initially appalled that a white man would have slept with a native woman; Joe begins a relationship with Liat that he knows has to end with him walking away.

Never having seen the movie, just various clips, I have no idea just how Joe's involvement with Liat begins in the film, but in the novel it's not particularly innocent. In the book, Liat's mother, Bloody Mary, basically pimps her out. She's operating a lucrative black market, Joe's been given the assignment of shutting her down, so what better way to co-opt him than by providing a beautiful distraction? Once he starts fraternizing with the locals, Joe's not going to be able to enforce the rules -- he can't risk having either his commanding officer or the enlisted men find out. Joe does become infatuated with Liat, but he's never going to marry her. He's pretty clearly in lust, not love. Besides, back in the 1940s, nice American boys did not marry girls they fucked the first time they saw them. His unit gets orders to move out, they're being shipped into actual combat, and that's that. Liat is gone from the book, and Joe isn't mentioned again until the final chapter.

Michener was well positioned to write this book. He was stationed in the Pacific and served as a naval historian. You can tell he really knew what he was writing about. He had seen it all up close, and although he fictionalized personalities, you can tell all the characters were inspired by real people. The one minor complaint I had about the book overall was in its ending. In the final chapter, the narrator is sitting in a cemetery on one of the islands talking with an enlisted man assigned to do cemetery maintenance. They're talking about people they knew in common, either personally or through reputation. That's when the author reveals that one of the characters most deserving of a hole in the ground had managed to slither his way back to the States before an especially bloody battle. It was pretty pre-ordained that most of the characters the reader comes to know and like are going to end up dead -- it was World War II, after all -- but it just seemed so unfair that one of the least likable survived.

So how would I rate this book? It's not the best of the Pulitzer winners I've read so far, but it's up towards the top of the list. On the usual 1 to 10 range, I'd give it an 8. The language felt a little dated in places, but overall it's worth reading.

Next up on the list? Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Hand me the tinfoil

I need to make a hat for a friend.

She's always been a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but I think she's slipped over the edge. She has fallen victim to one of the more venerable chestnuts among conspiracy theories, the absolutely classic belief that the current occupant of the White House is about to declare martial law and turn the United States into a Pinochet-style dictatorship, one that will no doubt come complete with NFL stadiums being filled with dissenters who have been targeted to "disappear." This particular delusion goes way back. It's so old that not only does it predate the Internet, it predates telephones and telegraphs. In fact, it goes back so far we were listing Presidents using single digits, as in One.

Yep, it goes back to George Washington. As soon as he announced he would accept a second term, there were political opponents and conspiracy-mongers telling anyone who would listen that the venerable George Washington, father of our country, was planning to have himself declared King. Today we have this image of Washington as being universally loved and respected; back in the 1790s it was a different story, especially after Washington authorized the use of the military to stamp out the Whiskey Rebellion. The theory faded a bit when John Adams became president -- it kind of killed the "Washington wants to be King!" rumors when he stepped down gracefully -- but it would re-emerge periodically, usually when the current President was someone who aroused particularly strong opposition from some segment of society. In the 19th century, Andrew Jackson was suspected of having dictatorial designs upon the country, ditto Abraham Lincoln. In the 20th, conservatives feared that Franklin D. Roosevelt would never relinquish his grasp on the White House (and they were right; it took death to get him out of the Oval Office), although World War II was enough of a distraction that most people welcomed a strong presidency rather than fearing it.

More recently, when the Watergate scandal broke in the 1970s, many people sincerely believed that Tricky Dicky would never go quietly. Carter, Reagan, and Bush the Elder escaped conspiracy theorizing, but Clinton and Bush the Younger were both star players in the minds of the tinfoil hat crowd. Clinton was going to seize power and declare Hillary was the next President (which sort of indicates who was perceived as being the scarier half of that particular power couple); Bush was going to declare martial law and void the 2008 election to prevent himself and members of his administration from being prosecuted for war crimes. (An alternate popular theory was that Bush was preparing to flee to a ranch in Paraguay to avoid prosecution for treason when it came out that he and Cheney were responsible for 9/11.) The fact both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were the subject of conspiracy theories is a rare example where you can say in all honesty that "both sides do it." It doesn't matter who's actually in office; both ends of the political spectrum have people sporting tinfoil hats.

In short, if a President can manage to be elected to a second term and is sufficiently disliked by enough people, he's going to be the star player in a conspiracy theory. The motives may vary along with the "evidence" being trotted out to support the theory, but the supposed ultimate goal is always a dictatorship. If you ask people what the evidence actually is, it falls into the classic urban legend pattern. That used to be "a friend of a friend knows all about this;" now it's "I read it on the Internet so it must be true." Either that, or it's perched upon such a slender reed that one marvels that anyone would pin their hopes on it. One general gets fired for being a drunken sot who caroused with hookers, and through the miracle of exaggeration and wishful thinking suddenly the President is eliminating all the senior military staff who disagree with him.  

The stupid, it burns.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

He snuck up on me again

It snowed again last night. This isn't exactly news for a Thursday in January in the U.P. I'm guessing we got at least a foot of what Sarge refers to as alligator repellent. I got up this morning, looked out at the driveway, and decided that this was going to The Morning when I finally got the perfect winter snowplowing photograph. Lots of fresh powdery snow and great light: just cloudy enough to keep things from glaring, but still really nice and bright. I was going to position myself so I could catch the grader just as he came around the curve. I got dressed, I put on boots, I was ready. I even kept stepping outside occasionally to listen for the machine. So how did I do?
He did it to me again. Snuck up. I swear I only looked at the computer screen for two seconds and the next thing I knew I heard the beep-beep-beep as he started to back up. Son of a bitch. How does he do it? How can a machine that big also be that quiet?!
It's a mystery.
Seeing just how deep the snow is on the grader makes me realize (again) how lucky we are that the county road commission still does private driveways. It's worth every dime of the annual plowing fee. 
The driveway plowing was a program begun by a previous county engineer. It's since been discontinued. I've mentioned before that it's one of those things that's being phased out through attrition. No one can be added, and if you drop off, you're off it forever.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

And you think politics are dirty now?

I just finished reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin that was supposedly the basis of the movie Lincoln. I haven't seen the movie, but I'm now tempted to add it to my Netflix queue. If it's at all faithful to the historic record the backstabbing and double dealing will make any gangster flick pale in comparison. People think political bickering is bad now. They should take a close look at the Civil War era. Lincoln didn't just have to deal with the rebellious secessionists in the South and their sympathizers in the North; he also had to try to keep his cabinet members from constantly trying to undercut each other, handing confidential documents over to the press, and plotting how to shove Abe out of the way in the next presidential election.

Today our Democratic president has to deal with Republicans who are borderline rude or racist; back in the 1860s Lincoln had the fun of dealing with members of his own party, indeed, his own cabinet officials, who openly referred to him as "that Ape" and told anyone who would listen that the North could not win the war because Lincoln was incompetent. The bizarre part is that these guys, like Salmon Chase, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury for almost four full years, worked hard at doing their respective jobs and they did them really well. However, they would still spend their free time doing everything they could to undermine the administration they were a part of. Chase was the worst -- he spent the entire time he was Treasury Secretary busily figuring out ways to undercut the President and improve his own chances to be the Republican nominee in 1864 -- but other members of the Cabinet were almost as bad. It took William Seward almost a full year to realize that his initial impressions of Lincoln were totally wrong and for Seward to swing around to being an ardent supporter and one of Lincoln's closest friends.

The other cabinet members, with the exception of Chase (a man whose ego apparently knew no bounds), also came to appreciate Lincoln's intelligence and political savvy, but even then they were unable to resist fighting among themselves. The Cabinet split between the radicals who wanted slavery utterly obliterated and every Southern rebel ground into dust and conservatives who wanted (even after some of the bloodiest battles of the war) to do the bare minimum necessary to bring hostilities to a close. Even after the Thirteenth Amendment had been introduced in Congress, there were still conservatives who hoped to placate the South by allowing slavery to remain legal in the secessionist states. This was despite the Emancipation Proclamation; conservatives actually argued that it would be possible to re-enslave blacks who had been freed by the proclamation.

It wasn't just the Cabinet either, of course. There were members of Congress who openly snubbed Lincoln, and members of the military who mocked him. One of the things I found it hardest to understand (and, to be honest, I still don't) is why Lincoln kept George McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac for as long as he did. I knew before reading Team of Rivals that McClellan was pretty useless militarily -- he sat on his ass and let Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreat after the Battle of Antietam. Both sides suffered massive troop losses, but McClellan had fresh troops in reserve; Lee did not. By all accounts, if McClellan could have avoided fighting at Antietam at all, he would have. He was notorious in the 1860s for loving parades and drills and looking good in a uniform while being incredibly reluctant to ever risk his self or his troops in an actual battle. Whenever he was pressed to engage the enemy, he would insist that military intelligence showed that the Union forces were vastly outnumbered. He couldn't risk an engagement until the Army had more men trained. Other sources would indicate that the Confederates had already withdrawn or had only a handful of troops; McClellan would insist the rebels were dug in with massive artillery emplacements and thousands of infantry men.

But that's not the main reason I wondered why Lincoln didn't get rid of McClellan. What had me baffled was Lincoln tolerating McClellan's open rudeness towards Lincoln himself. Lincoln would walk to McClellan's headquarters to be briefed by him on the war's progress, and McClellan would keep Lincoln waiting for hours or refuse to meet with him at all. Even after the second battle of Manassas, which was lost because McClellan disobeyed a direct order to move his troops into position to reinforce General Pope's Union forces, it took several weeks for Lincoln to finally remove McClellan from command.
General George McClellan

Nonetheless, because he looked good in a uniform and the troops admired him, the American people saw McClellan as a hero. Even after being booted from command for something that would merit a court martial today (and did then, too), McClellan was able to roam around the northern states, badmouthing Lincoln and the Republican party at every opportunity while preparing to run for President as a Democrat in 1864. Obviously, McClellan was as incompetent as a politician as he was as a general, although he did succeed in getting elected governor of New Jersey in the 1870s. (Total digression: why was the hand inside the uniform jacket such a popular pose in the 19th century? Were military suspenders inadequate?)

The dirty politics weren't just aimed at Lincoln himself. Just like today, except maybe worse, Lincoln's detractors felt free to go after the First Lady, too. She was castigated in the press for spending too much money when she redecorated the White House, she was slammed as the 19th century equivalent of a shopaholic for her personal spending sprees, and she was almost universally disliked because of her volatile personality. Given that Lincoln's own secretaries privately referred to Mary Lincoln as the Hellcat it's not particularly surprising the press picked up on her flaws pretty quickly. Still, in more recent times, the polite convention is that the First Lady should be treated civilly: minimal name calling and only muted criticism. Not everyone abides by that unspoken rule, but in general the mainstream media are nice.

There are exceptions -- Nancy Reagan was criticized for spending too much on the White House china, Hillary Clinton got slammed for meddling in policy instead of picking a nice innocuous good cause, and Michelle Obama has come under fire for suggesting children be fed healthy food instead of garbage -- but even those criticisms are muted compared to the language used in the 1860s. Today scholars argue about whether or not Mary Todd Lincoln might have suffered from bipolar disorder; Kearns Goodwin speculates that it a combination of severe migraines aggravated by a carriage accident and the deaths of two of her children that led to Mary's mental instability. Her son Willie's death from typhoid hit her particularly hard. Back in the 1860s, however, her critics just assumed the woman was a bitch, although they would have used more elaborate terms in print. (Another digression: going by the trailers I saw for the movie and the photos in the book, casting Sally Field as Mary Lincoln in the movie Lincoln was dead on in terms of physical resemblance. Before she got worn down by age, stress, and grief, Mary Lincoln was cute, one of those perky looking women who would have made a good Gidget.)

One thing this book does well is paint a clear picture of how different politics were 150 years ago compared with today's practices. Presidential campaigns, for example, were run through proxies. The would-be candidate never came right out and said "Vote for me." Instead, he would do speaking tours where the speeches would focus on the important issues of the time, but there would never be a direct suggestion that the speaker himself was the solution to the problems. The people introducing him might allude to future elections and they would talk him up when he wasn't around, but the presidential candidate himself supposedly remained above the fray. It was considered unseemly to appear too interested in public in one's own success. Candidates didn't even attend political conventions. Both times Lincoln was nominated, he was many miles away from the convention hall. It didn't matter how fervently a candidate wanted to be elected, they all practiced a polite kabuki in which they disavowed publicly their interest in elective office.

Candidates for lower office might engage more publicly -- the famous Lincoln-Douglass debates were part of the 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois -- but the President was supposed to be a disinterested statesman. It was a strange polite fiction, given that at the same time the candidates' minions would be working the back channels like crazy, making promises of future political patronage and opportunities for graft, and pulling every string they could. Lincoln's political genius lay in being able to tell his minions what promises to make and which to obfuscate. He knew going into the 1860 Republican convention that he was no one's first choice, but with the proper groundwork, he could become everyone's second -- and if none of the better known candidates prevailed, he'd be the fallback. It worked, although once the war broke out, he probably regretted it.

Overall verdict on the book? It's well worth reading, although it's not a fast or easy read. The book is dense, over 800 pages when you include the bibliography and notes. Even in paperback, it was heavy enough that I felt like I was doing arm curls every time I hefted the thing. Definitely not a beach read, but great for the middle of the winter when curling up in a warm corner for a prolonged period of time is looking good.

Monday, January 20, 2014


I need to start carrying a tripod along when we go anywhere at night. I've been wanting to get a night shot of the sign for Bingo's Motel and Bar for years, but it's hard to take a good photo of neon with a hand held camera.

I'm not sure how many years the motel has been in business or how long the sign's be there -- the fact it highlights the availability of TV suggests it's been quite a few years -- but every time we drive by I wonder how they manage to stay in business. Maybe it's the time of day we're passing by, but there are rarely any cars parked by any of the units. The establishment appears well maintained, though, so obviously they do have customers.

In fact, they had customers when we stopped so I could take a photo. Snowmobilers had checked in; there was a pickup with a humongous trailer in the lot.

The Bingo's complex also includes a service station, or it used to. I haven't been paying enough attention recently to know if the garage is still open or if they still sell gasoline. If it does, this would indeed be a good place for snowmobilers to stay. Spitting distance from the trail system, and everything they want (beer and fuel) close at hand.

I went looking for information about the motel online. I was hoping to find a review or two, and I sort of did, although it was more in praise of the bar. Apparently beer is $2.50, which the person posting the comment viewed as being a good deal. I drink beer so rarely that I no longer know what the average cost is, so I'll take his word for it.

Thought for today

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thought for today

I've never been able to figure out the logic behind the claim that anyone else's marriage would influence any relationship other than their own. I've asked some Bible thumpers directly just how or why gays getting married would harm the institution of marriage in general, and they can never come up with a coherent answer. The usual response is some sputtering about God not liking it. How do they know? It's more like they don't like it and are using God as an excuse. After all, if we were to base all marriages on the Bible, we'd still be practicing polygamy, men would be keeping concubines or banging their wives' slaves, and fathers would be selling daughters in exchange for some livestock. Granted, there are days when someone offering a couple cows in exchange for a sullen teenager might look good, but even so . . . times have changed, marriage has changed, and life goes on.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Out and about

The S.O. and I went ambling up to Houghton-Hancock this morning. Well, maybe ambling isn't quite the right word. Ambling implies a pleasant walk or drive engaged in solely for the pleasure of wandering around for no particular reason. Stumbling out of bed at zero dark thirty, discovering that multiple inches of the promised lake effect snow did actually fall overnight, and then driving 45 miles to the V.A. clinic for a blood draw isn't actually much of an amble. It's more like an endurance test.

And why were we stumbling out the door before daylight? It's annual physical time for the S.O. Today was the lab work; next week is the actual turn your head and cough with the doctor. I'm thinking that maybe he should start nudging the schedule a little, trying to get it so it falls a little later in the calendar, like maybe in June. Or July. Having to be at the doctor's office shortly after 8 a.m. might not seem quite as horrendous when the sun's already up and the highway isn't covered with blowing snow.

Of course, I didn't have to go with him. He doesn't need moral support just to piss in a cup and have a few tubes of blood sucked out of an arm. I could have stayed home, curled up blissfully in a warm bed, and let the S.O. brave the winter roads alone. However. . . and this a big however . . . once he was done at the clinic, he would go somewhere for breakfast. It had been quite a few months since I'd had breakfast at the Suomi Restaurant in Houghton. Nisu french toast. Or perhaps one of their famous blueberry pancakes. Or some pannukakku. Multiple possibilities, all of which are worth getting up early any time of the year.

There was a time when we were regulars at the Suomi. Back when I was teaching and the Younger Daughter was a student at Tech, we would meet at the Suomi fairly often to do lunch or breakfast. The S.O. and I went there a lot, too. We'd go to Houghton to shop, and we'd eat at the Suomi. We'd be up there a couple times a month. Now it's more like a couple times a year, at least for me. The S.O. gets up there more often because he gets drafted to drive other people occasionally, like the crazy neighbor who can't afford license plates for his own car. The neighbor even has the papers to prove he's crazy, but that's a subject for another time.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Offensive content?

Saw this cartoon and immediately was reminded of various fellow bloggers being lectured occasionally about offensive content. I've never understood why anyone would feel like they had a right to dictate what other people do with their blogs or Facebook posts. If a site has adult content (raw language, pinup photos), so what? No one is out there twisting your arm forcing you to visit a blog site or to read a particular post. Sooner or later everyone ends up at a blog they don't like when doing a Google search or clicking on a link at another site, but once you've figured out you're not interested in reading about the joys of motherhood, the perils of gardening, or looking at pictures of cats or naked people (or some combination of the two), why not just move on? Unless the site is promoting illegal activities (kiddy porn, terrorist plots, hate crimes) that merit reporting it to someone in law enforcement, just make a mental note to yourself that the site doesn't have any content that interests you and get on with your life. Why bother to hang around to complain in the comments? There are way too many people out there who need to find more productive hobbies.

As for the folks who complain that they're worried about what their children might see -- the accidental viewing of James Deen's dick, for example -- there's the same solution to that problem that is the solution to most problems with kids. Talk to the little barracudas about the various potholes in the information superhighway, pay attention to their browsing habits, and keep adult technology out of their grubby little hands until they're old enough to be semi-responsible.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Lucky bastard"

From the National Park Service's Morning Report for today:
Rocky Mountain National Park (CO)Snowshoer Dies Of Heart Attack
A 74-year-old man from Fort Collins suffered a cardiac emergency while snowshoeing near Mills Lake on Tuesday, January 7th.
The man’s friends contacted park rangers by cell phone and began CPR, but were unable to revive him. He was pronounced dead around 1 p.m.
Mills Lake is almost three miles from the trailhead and close to 10,000 feet in elevation. Park staff, assisted by Larimer County Search and Rescue, recovered the man’s body and transferred it to the Larimer County Coroner’s Office.
As someone who has entered the Grumpy Old Men stage of life, i.e., the one where you start checking the obits in the morning to make sure you're not listed, I can't help but think that if there's such a thing as a good death, this guy experienced it -- out in the mountains, enjoying a hike with friends in a place he probably loved, and he keels over. Not much fun for his friends, true, but you can't win them all. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Snow days? We never had snow days

Got up this morning to below zero temperatures outdoors. According to the indoor/outdoor thermometer, it was minus 13.9 and dropping at 6 a.m. Today's predicted high is slightly warmer; it's supposed to climb all the way up to minus 6. Fahrenheit, of course, I don't want to think about what it would be in Celsius because Celsius always sounds colder.

What intrigues me about this particular cold snap is the way people are reacting to it. Below zero temperatures aren't exactly new here in the U.P. I can recall many winters where the lows would be down around minus 30 or even 40 below, especially toward the end of January and the beginning of February. I can remember waking up one morning at my parents' house, a structure that relied on one pathetic oil-burning space heater to prevent frostbite and hypothermia in its residents, and finding ice had formed in the water glass on the nightstand. And how did we all respond to this bitter cold? We got up, got dressed, ate breakfast, and then headed out the door to walk to school through waist deep snow. Uphill. Both ways.

Well, maybe no waist deep snow and there was a school bus, but nonetheless we went to school. No one panicked because it was, holy fuck, cold. It was northern Wisconsin in the winter. You expected cold, you dealt with it and quietly hoped for an early spring. Didn't matter just how many brass monkeys were shedding testicles, unless that cold was accompanied by blizzard-like snow conditions, you went to school.

Even 20 years ago bitter cold didn't inspire entire states to close their school systems. Back in 1993-1994 we had a record cold winter. Temperatures were minus 20 or colder in the middle of the day for what seemed like weeks on end. Municipal water pipes froze that hadn't frozen since they were put in a hundred years earlier. But people bundled up, kids kept getting on school buses, and life went on.

So what's different this time? Is this yet another phenomenon that we can blame on the Internet and/or social media? Or is it simply the result of the traditional mainstream media flogging a story to death because nothing else has been happening in the world lately and they're tired of talking about the Winter Olympics and Russian homophobia? Why are people freaking out now over single digit below zero temperatures predicted to last for only a couple days when not long ago all it would have merited was parents reminding kids to dress in layers. I don't know. I do know that the local TV station put up a list on Facebook of schools that are closed today, and it seemed to cover just about every district in the Upper Peninsula. Just because Minnesota panicked we're supposed to, too? Unreal.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

People are strange

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the left, Harry Houdini on the right.
I've been reading Harry Houdini's explication of spiritualism, A Magician Among the Spirits. At the time Houdini wrote the book, spiritualism was in vogue. Quite a few famous people -- most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes -- were totally convinced it was possible to communicate with the spirit world. Houdini described himself as someone who wanted to believe in spiritualism, but he knew too much about how easy it is to deceive people to fall for any of the typical medium's tricks himself.

In A Magician Among the Spirits Houdini details the history of spiritualism in the United States and elsewhere. The first well-known mediums to become a public sensation were the Fox sisters, two little girls from New York who in the 1840s began playing tricks on their mother. They managed to convince her their house was haunted. Pretty soon the neighbors also believed that the girls could communicate with the ghost. No doubt the dim lighting (candles, oil lamps) common in homes at the time made it easy for the girls to get away with their pranks. They created rapping noises by using an apple tied to a string; later they figured out how to make rapping noises with their feet. The girls' oldest sister decided there was money to be made from people who wanted to believe in spirits and communication with the dead; she took charge of the girls' career and toured the country with them. Both sisters eventually confessed to having committed fraud, but only after decades of conning a gullible public.They described how they had trained themselves to make rapping noises using their toes after they began holding seances in places that were too well-lighted to allow them to use the same tricks they had used on their parents.

The American Civil War gave a tremendous boost to spiritualism, both as a belief system and as a lucrative career. The death toll during the war was staggering; grieving parents and widows were desperate for a chance to communicate with their deceased loved ones. Spiritualists and mediums quickly learned to adapt new technology to their trade: some spiritualists became adept at creating "spirit photographs" using the simple technique of double exposure. Others invented electrical devices to create the various noises associated with communicating with the spirits. Houdini describes one battery-operated device that was fitted into the heel of a woman's shoe; the wires ran up the medium's leg and the long, full skirts with the multiple petticoats in vogue at the time ensured that the device remained undetected.

Houdini made an intense investigation of spiritualism because he hoped that the basic premise -- communication with the dead -- was possible. He describes himself as having been devastated when his mother died; he kept hoping for evidence of true communication with her, but of course never found it. Numerous spiritualists would claim that her spirit was present, but none ever produced any evidence that Houdini found credible. His thought processes were simply too logical to accept the "proof" the mediums offered. Among other things, his mother never spoke a word of English -- she was a Hungarian immigrant -- yet the communications from beyond were always in English. The spiritualists explained that in the spirit world, people learned things they hadn't known here. Houdini naturally thought that was ridiculous.

Still, although Houdini remained skeptical his entire life, he did sympathize with the victims of spiritualism. He understood why they were so anxious to believe what they were hearing. He was good friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a fervent believer in spiritualism, although they were often in complete opposition on the issue. Doyle kept hoping to convince Houdini of the validity of spiritualism; Houdini kept hoping his good friend Doyle would see through the charlatans.

What Houdini had absolute scorn for were the spiritualists who preyed upon grief-stricken widows and bereaved parents. He cooperated with numerous investigations of fraudulent mediums and, along with other magicians, was able to expose a number of con artists. He was able to show that many of the supposedly inexplicable results achieved by mediums were easily duplicated by anyone who was shown the proper techniques. Table raisings, for example, were accomplished through a combination of using one foot under the leg of a table and a special belt with a stiff metal rod concealed in it. Other results were achieved through the power of suggestion.

Houdini also noted that skilled mediums were adept at fishing: they would learn enough in conversation with a client to be able to say something that led to the client spilling more information that the medium could build on. If there was enough money on the line, mediums were known to have engaged in active snooping: reading mail, planting a spy in a household (e.g., having an accomplice take a position as a housemaid or other servant), and bribing hotel staff. Houdini describes several mediums who actually paid burglars to break into clients' homes to obtain personal correspondence and other documents that the medium would carefully study and then have the burglars return. When spiritualism was at its height, there were numerous cases of wealthy clients being fleeced for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not surprisingly, many of the victims of these cons by unscrupulous mediums refused to believe the spiritualists had lied to them.

One thing that did baffle Houdini was why so many people persisted in wanting a magical or supernatural explanation for what were purely physical and easily explainable phenomena. Over and over Houdini and other magicians would find their work, which they described honestly as sleight of hand or illusion accomplished through various tricks, described by others as actual magic. Houdini specialized as an escape artist. He worked hard at perfecting techniques for escaping from handcuffs, straight jackets, and other restraints and had various devices built to his specifications that he would use for his performances. Rather than admit that Houdini was simply extremely skilled at what he did, many of the advocates of spiritualism would claim that Houdini had actually dematerialized and transported himself outside whatever restraints or container he had been in. Today, of course, when people see someone like David Blaine or Criss Angel perform the typical reaction is "wow, cool trick. I wonder how he did that?" We don't think Criss Angel has supernatural powers when he performs an illusion like walking on water; we just think he's really good at what he does. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Houdini to have the people who believed in spiritualism touting Houdini's illusions and escapes as examples of the spirit world at work. He'd spend many months or even years perfecting a trick only to have the spiritualists dismissing his hard work as simply being his ability to teleport himself.

What struck me as I read that chapter was that the spiritualists' insistence that Houdini had supernatural powers was a classic example of the human tendency to insist on a complicated or unrealistic explanation when a simple truth exists. For some strange reason, we humans want life to be messier than it actually is. It's not enough that there be an explanation for something; it has to be a complicated or improbable explanation rather than a simple one. And then when something is debunked, we don't want it to stay debunked.

Here in the western Upper Peninsula for quite a few years people were intrigued, some might say fascinated, by a phenomenon known as the Paulding Light. Paulding is a tiny community located on US-45 between Watersmeet and Bruce Crossing. The Paulding Light was a mysterious light that could be seen through the woods when a person stood in a certain location. I personally never made the pilgrimage to Paulding after dark even though it's not that far from where we live (about an hour's drive), but both of our kids did at some point in the 1990s. I think one saw the light; the other just complained about mosquito bites and boredom. Local stores sold tee-shirts and other souvenirs touting the Paulding Light, and one of those ridiculous ghost hunter type shows actually came and filmed a segment on the light. There were various explanations as to why the light existed. I vaguely recall some odd story about a train and brakeman and a tragic accident, and no doubt I'd find a few other anecdotes if I bothered to Google Paulding Light.

This went on for years, people coming to the Paulding area in hopes of seeing the light. Then those damned logical engineering students at Michigan Tech decided to check it out. They did a controlled experiment and proved pretty quickly that the mysterious, ghostly Paulding light was nothing more than car lights on the highway. They went to the observation spot where people claimed to have seen the light, they saw a light, they got out a telescope, and it was obviously car lights. They were even able to locate the exact spot where the lights originated: there was an Adopt A Highway sign visible. Since then, other people have been able to confirm that, yep, car lights. No doubt if US-45 was a busier highway the explanation would have emerged much sooner because people would have seen more lights closer together long before the Tech students set up their telescope. Not surprisingly, once the car lights explanation became widely known, other people visiting the site quickly agreed that yes, the light is obviously a light from a vehicle.

At least that's what most people say. Having been provided with an explanation, suddenly most people no longer see a railroad lantern being held by a dead brakeman but instead see tail lights on a Ford truck. There are still a few die hard would-be spiritualists, however, who keep right on insisting the light is a paranormal phenomenon. They still see a ghostly trainman.

People are strange.

Or, to put it another way, the stupid, it burns.

Friday, January 3, 2014

It's hard being a grammar Nazi

I find nifty memes on the Internet, cute little quotes and graphics and fun stuff that at first blush I think, hey, neat, I'll use that on the blog or I'll pass it along on Facebook. Then the copy editor personality kicks in, and there's the inevitable face palm. What is so terribly difficult about writing a simple sentence without screwing it up?

This one, for example, should read "Some days the supply of available curse words is insufficient to meet my demands." A space between "some" and "days" and no comma. How hard is that to get right? Too hard, apparently, for the humans behind the website.

Head. Desk. I like the thought trying to be expressed in this graphic but do I really want to pass on yet another example of sloppy writing on the Internet?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Maybe I read too much

I think I'm starting off the new year reading a book I've read before. When I spotted Flash and Bones on the remainder table at Barnes and Noble back in November, I was sure it was one in the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs that I hadn't read before. Now I'm wondering if it happened to be one I managed to snag at the library almost as soon as it came out in 2011 and I just didn't remember.

I had that happen to me twice this year at the library -- I spotted a book that looked interesting, the title did not ring any bells, and then when I got into it, it was like, whoa, I have read this sucker before. The most disconcerting part was going back, checking the reading list I keep on this blog, and discovering it wasn't actually that long ago. I guess this is the curse of the fast reader. If a book is good but not great, it doesn't stick in my mind that long.

Oh well, at least it's been long enough that I'm not remembering any plot details.  I've read enough of the Bones books to know there are some predictable plot elements -- the ending for sure will involve Tempe doing something super stupid, like deciding to check out a suspect without telling anyone where she's going, because she does that in every book, but she'll survive. She has to survive. I've already read the Bones book that follows this one in the series.