Saturday, February 28, 2009

A rose by any other name

may smell as sweet, but does re-labeled and higher-priced prune juice work as well as the original variety? According to Sunsweet it does.
Of course, they don't want you to confuse PlumSmart with your grandmother's prune juice, so the label calls it "New!" I love the little "for digestive health" blurb added to the label. No shit. And, to go with your new and improved prune juice, how about some chocolate covered fruit?

The ultimate antioxidant snack. Chocolate covered prunes. You've got to love it -- chocolate covered raisins are getting competition from another wrinkled fruit, but the chocolate covered "plums" don't just taste good, they're good for you.
I've been seeing the ads on television and being thoroughly amused by them -- I keep thinking "Not your Grandmother's Fruit!" whenever the ads run -- and wondering if Sunsweet thinks consumers really are so ignorant that they don't realize a dried plum is a prune. But this morning, in one of those moments that where external events neatly synchronize with personal thoughts, while I've been writing about a fruit noted for its association with the free flow of feces, Michelle Malkin has been babbling away in the background on C-SPAN. I don't have to ask about consumers and stupidity -- every time Malkin opens her mouth, some wingnut calls in to agree with her, and I realize that, yes, when it comes to discerning crap, Americans are pretty damn gullible.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


I had a rather amusing exchange with a friend recently. When I got sucked into FaceBook I did the usual mass e-mail to almost everyone I have an e-mail address for inviting them all to be my "friends." And I got what I assume is the usual response: about half said yes, about half about ignored the message, one or two said they didn't do FaceBook because it can turn into such a time sucker, and one did a long explication on government and corporate conspiracies that are eventually going to end with none of us having any claim to privacy and being linked together in some sort of bizarre hive-mind commune cheerfully lining up to provide Soylent Green to our overlords. Or maybe we'll all just be singing "Kumbaya" around the embers of a dying civilization -- the endgame wasn't real clear.

Well, I figured out quite awhile ago it's a little late for anyone in this country to worry about personal privacy. We gave that right up about the same time we as a society collectively agreed we'd register births, names were fixed, and we'd all have social security numbers, drivers licenses, and check cashing IDs. The privacy we have isn't because no one can find us; it's because most of the time no one cares.

And in my own case, not only do I work for the government, I'm apparently the only person in this country with my name. So my life is an open book. Want to know exactly where I work? Check the employee directory for Large Nameless Agency. Want to know how much money I make? There's a website for that, too. It'll be an approximation because the database is usually running about a year behind, but it'll tell you my job title and pay grade -- and from that it's pretty easy to figure out my current salary down to the last dime because the Office of Personnel Management puts out wage tables that break it down by locality.

Want to know what my professional and personal interests are? Where I went to school? That was all out there in the public domain long before I ever stumbled into FaceBook's world. Depending on how someone Googles me, they'll discover real fast that 53 out of 71 people found my book reviews on helpful, I share a birthday with Macchiavelli and Golda Meier, I graduated from Michigan Technological University, and I'm a member of the Forest History Society.

On the other hand, my paranoid acquaintance has a name that is shared by a dozens, possibly hundreds, of fellow Americans. Want to be anonymous and obscure in a linked society? Have a name that's possessed by several hundred other people scattered everywhere from Bangor, Maine, to Orange County, California. You're still not invisible, but you're definitely lower profile in cyberspace than someone with a more unique moniker. (The drawback to having a common name, of course, is that you just might share it with someone who's on the "no fly list" or is wanted for bank robbery in half a dozen states.)

Implicit in the concern about getting involved in FaceBook is the fear of government conspiracies, the idea that the NSA, FBI, and other spooks are busy spying on us all. What if they are? I'm not too thrilled with the idea, but, hey, I work for the government. I know how incompetent we are (e.g., "desk side recycling"). So my major concern isn't the fact that we might be spying -- it's that we're probably doing it badly. I don't particularly want various law enforcement agencies shredding the Constitution, but at the same time as a taxpayer I'd prefer that when they do shred it they at least do so competently.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What genius thought this up?

I'm feeling the need this morning to mock some of my well-meaning co-workers here at Large Nameless Agency. Every so often they come up with bright ideas that aren't real bright.

Like the latest recycling effort.

It is called Deskside Recycling. It'll cover everything recyclable -- paper, plastics, glass, aluminum, just toss it all into one bin. Sounds good, right? My first thought was, oh, good, they're going to distribute the dedicated individual bins like the Park Service used in Omaha, little blue wastebaskets with the Recycle emblem on them. We'd be doing good for the environment and stimulating the economy by tossing some money in the general direction of Rubbermaid. Not quite. LNA wants us to "re-purpose" our existing trash cans, our regular wastebaskets, the one I'm used to just dropping my soggy tea bags, Hershey Kiss wrappers, apple cores, and used sandwich bags into.

So what do I do with the apple cores and tea bags? Anything that's touched food (or is the residue of food) will get carried up to the trash bins in the third or fifth floor break rooms. I don't think so. In fact, I think the odds are pretty good (given that this is a voluntary effort) that the majority of my fellow cubicle rats will keep right on pitching their trash into (what a surprise) the trash can next to the desk.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fiberglass dogs along US 80

A couple photos from our recent trip to Savannah: This guy is sitting in front of a restaurant that has some sort of obsession with the University of Georgia. I did not think to ask if they're a chain, in which case there's a whole herd of fiberglas Ugas scattered around the state, or if this Uga was a custom job.
This dog apparently attracts so many visitors to the parking lot of Great Dane Trailers that the company has had to put up warning signs asking people to please not try to climb on the statue. The book on a stick is a brief paean to the Great Dane. (I'm thinking about fiberglass this morning because it beats listening to the wackaloons calling in to C-SPAN. The nut to sane person ratio seems a little more skewed than usual.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Braised possum and other delicacies

Yesterday Shapely Prose had a long, really funny discussion about food, recipes, Joy of Cooking, and a recent piece of what looks like bad science* blaming obesity on the fact Americans are using more grease and sugar in home cooking -- so much for it's being McDonald's fault -- and then this morning while ambling to work I overheard this intriguing bit of conversation between two fellows on their way to the bus stop: "when she popped the lid off that 5-quart slow cooker and there was that possum curled up looking just like a cooked chihuahua I liked to have died . . . ."

So now I'm wondering. . . do any of the editions of Joy of Cooking cover possum? I've got the 1951 edition -- it does come complete with the squirrel skinning illustration, but no actual recipes for squirrel although there are recipes for rabbit, venison, and some hints on wild game in general. We do have a possum or two ambling around the neighborhood; one shows up on the patio every so often. Would using a slow cooker make possum more edible? And what kind of wine do you serve with possum? I'd assume something made from muscadine grapes, in keeping with Southern traditional food groups, but who knows?

I'm also wondering, of course, just how many cooked chihuahuas that good ol' boy with the really thick hillbilly accent has seen in his time.

[*I'm not sure it's so much bad science as lame science, i.e., a didn't you guys have something better to do with your time? The study, published as a letter in the current issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, compares recipes from different editions of Joy of Cooking and notes that we're using different ingredients now than we did 80 years ago, serving sizes tend to be bigger, and calorie counts are higher. They also note there are cultural reasons for the shifts: more meat going into that hideous hamburger/tomato/macaroni goulash that school lunchrooms have served for millennia, for example, because, adjusting for inflation, beef is cheaper now than it was in 1931. And meat has a higher calorie count than pasta, hence more calories per serving of goulash now than back when my grandmother was cooking it. Bottom line, which tends to fall into the "no shit, Sherlock," category of scientific conclusions, is that Americans are eating better now than they did during the Great Depression.]

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Military traditions

I just finished reading A Terrible Glory, a history about Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, the battle of the Little Bighorn, and a military screw-up and subsequent cover-up that ranks right up there with some of the finest army disasters and CYA activities of all time. I've read a lot about Custer and the Sioux wars so this book didn't hold many surprises.

One thing did become clear, though. I always wondered why Anheuser-Busch distributed so many prints of Custer's Last Stand to taverns. After reading A Terrible Glory it's clear the brewery was in mourning over losing so many of its best customers. It's moderately amazing the members of the 7th Cavalry were able to stay on their horses considering how much booze both the officers and enlisted men consumed. Major Reno should have been absolutely paralytic, but even in the heat of battle instead managed to keep staggering to the whiskey jugs and picking fights with enlisted men while his company (or what was left of it) tried to stay alive. And while Reno may have been the biggest drunk, he definitely wasn't the only one.

The Army did eventually get around to investigating what went wrong, and, in the fine tradition of whitewash jobs everywhere, the board of inquiry eventually found that if anyone had messed up it was the dead guy. No surprise there. In short, no significant problems with communications, supply lines, or intelligence on the part of the generals planning the campaign, and if Reno and the other surviving officers disobeyed orders, behaved like gibbering idiots, or just generally screwed up big time they were still all found to have behaved honorably and with distinction. Medals were handed out, promotions assured, and everyone went home happy except Custer's widow. She spent the next 50+ years working on redeeming his image as a popular hero. Not that it helped him in the long run -- once she was dead, too, historians had a field day. Custer's one of those colorful idiots that just makes for really good story telling, no matter what type of revisionist spin someone wants to put on the whole mess.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fort Pulaski National Monument

I'm not normally real keen on cannonball parks, especially ones that announce their presence by flying a garrison stars and bars, but Fort Pulaski is different.

It has a lighthouse.
A really cute little channel marker, the Cockspur Island Light. Granted, it's been relegated to day marker status since 1909, but it's still cute. It's also threatened, of course. The usual suspects: time and the environment. It's threatened by salt water, by erosion, by lack of maintenance monies. The original iron cupola is sitting in the parade ground at the fort in an effort both to preserve it and to serve as a visual reminder to park visitors to cough up some bucks. The cupola on the tower now is stainless steel so it isn't as susceptible to the salt water.

Fort Pulaski also has a moat, another point in its favor. No 'gators cruising around while we were there, but it was a little chilly for reptiles.
Fort Pulaski was built to protect the approach to the harbor at Savannah. It was considered more or less impregnable, although why any military mind in the 19th century would think building the equivalent of a medieval curtain wall, even a really thick one, was proof against cannon fire is beyond me. It was occupied by the Confederacy at the beginning of the war, but once Union forces decided they wanted it, they took it without much hassle. Rifled cannon shot fired from Tybee Island hammered a breach in one wall in short order, and that was that.
I was intrigued by the carriages used to move the heavy cannon. It struck me that was I was looking at was the "big wheels" used in logging in the 19th century. Logging histories always describe big wheels as being introduced in the early 1870s -- or at least that's when the first photographs of them being used appear. It finally hit me (definitely one of those "doh!" moments for a historian of technology) that they're a classic case of technology transfer: it wouldn't be much of a stretch for military veterans going back home to work in the woods to realize that if it was possible to move large cannon by slinging them under an axle it would also be possible to move large pine logs that way.
Fort Pulaski was once surrounded by salt marsh with very little solid ground outside the perimeter of the fort's dike. Over the years material dredged from the river has been added to Cockspur Island, so there's now a fairly extensive area with hiking/biking trails and a picnic area.

The fort overall had a distinctly anachronistic feel, even allowing for the fact it was built in the first half of the 18th century. You cross a moat twice to get into it, and then walk up through a passageway that feels like it should have murder holes in the ceiling. The fact the one volunteer re-enactor/living history person on duty looked to be old enough to have served with Stonewall Jackson just added to the ambience. The snarky part of me kept wanting to ask him, "So, Gramps, are you the living history embodiment of the CSA recruiters scraping the bottom of the barrel?"

Fort Pulaski is also notable as being the site of one of the earliest known photograph of troops playing baseball -- an October 1862 photo of troops drilling on the parade ground shows a baseball game in progress behind them -- but apparently there's more glory to be had in Georgia in dressing up as a CSA artilleryman than as a New York shortstop.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Over-photographed and/or painted light stations

Maine has the Portland head, Georgia has Tybee Island. Guess it does help to be able to drive right up to the thing -- no inconvenient boat trips involved so it's easy to sit and paint regardlessof what the weather does.

What surprised me was how short it looks is for an east coast light that's not perched on the edge of humongous bluff. Maybe it's the paint job with the broad horizontal stripes because the tower is 145 feet tall. The lens is a first order Fresnel installed in 1867 with a focal plane of 144 feet above sea level.

The massive poured concrete structure behind the book on a stick is part of a series of World War II fortifications/artillery batteries meant to protect the mouth of the Savannah River. They're big, they're ugly, one section that's apparently gone through some interesting rehab for adaptive re-use now houses a local Shriners hall. The batteries kind of kill the ocean view the lighthouse keeper's family would once have enjoyed from their front porch.

Another time sucker

FaceBook. Got talked into it last week, and suddenly "friends" are crawling out of the virtual woodwork.

I do need to watch what I do over there, though. I've been seeing an interesting warnings up about FaceBook, terms of use, and copyright/privacy issues. Apparently any photos a person or written material a person puts up becames the property of FaceBook for them to do with what they will. Not that I care much -- my photos aren't that great (they're usually nicely flawed by cat hairs clinging to the lens), and the writing is the equivalent of doodles.

Of course, the same is true of blogging in general. Any time a person puts anything up on the web, unless they embed something in the photo, like a nice diagonal overlay screaming COPYRIGHT in humongous letters, it's at risk of someone else doing a cut and paste and re-using it. About all one can do is hope that anyone lifting something is nice enough to tell the rest of the world where they found it. No, realistically the danger with FaceBook isn't anyone stealing my deathless prose -- it's me wasting more time than I should on an activity that's as ephemeral as an Atlanta snowfall.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Brief update/tease

Spent the weekend in Savannah sans computer. Did not go anywhere near anything bearing Paula Deen's name, also avoided anything overtly connected with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (much as I loved the book) other than Bonaventure Cemetery. Did add to my NPS life list. Details to follow, both here and over at I See Dead People.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pulitzer Project: The Magnificent Ambersons

I finished reading The Magnificent Ambersons last night. Written by Booth Tarkington, an immensely popular early 20th century author, the book was awarded the second Pulitzer Prize for fiction back in 1919.

Reading The Magnificent Ambersons felt a bit like stepping into a time capsule. The novel is set in the Midwest, no doubt Indiana, in the late 19th century. The Ambersons are a wealthy family in a small city. The head of the family, Major Amberson, fought in the Civil War and is one of the most influential men in town when the story begins. He builds a magnificent Romanesque mansion on a four-acre tract to house his family, and, when his only daughter marries, has a grand house built for her and her husband right across the street from his. His daughter produces a son, George Amberson Minafer, who turns out to be both an only child and the only grandchild.

This does not bode well for George, of course. As far as his mother is concerned, George can do no wrong. It's no surprise that George goes from being a remarkably self-centered and obnoxious child to being an arrogant and oblivious young man. As a child, he's a bully, and as a young man he's a jerk. He has a circle of acquaintances but no real friends. He also has no ambition -- he goes off to an Ivy league school and earns a degree, but has no plans to use it for anything. After all, as he explains, why should he? He's an Amberson. He's the only grandchild. His family is wealthy -- he doesn't have to work. As far as George is concerned, work is something only the lower classes do.

I don't think I have to say much more for the logical course of the novel to be evident: Major Amberson makes a series of bad investments, the equivalent of opening a buggy whip factory next door to Ford's first auto assembly plant, and dies basically penniless. Real estate assets of the estate apparently go to settle debts as all George is left with for an inheritance are the contents of his mother's house (which the Major had never bothered to deed to her, so it's sold along with his), and he has to sell the furniture at auction. In the course of a few short weeks George goes from assuming that he'll be a man of leisure indefinitely to having to figure out how to pay the rent for himself and a spinster aunt at a cheap boarding hotel. As reality checks go, it's pretty brutal.

The book overall paints an interesting picture of American society in a time of rapid transitions. The automobile, electricity, and other innovations are all introduced to the town of Midlands as the story progresses. At the beginning of the novel the town is fairly homogeneous: there are the white residents who are the descendants of settlers who came from New England, and there are black residents who work as servants and stablemen (the references to darkies and the exaggerated dialect Tarkington puts in the mouths of blacks can be a little jarring to a 21st century reader), and almost everyone lives in a single family home, and, as Tarkington says, every respectable family has a Newfoundland dog for the children. Everyone knows everyone. It's described as a small city, but it's more like a small town. By the end of the book the city has grown to where to foreign immigrants have established distinct neighborhoods, multiple story apartment buildings crowd the streets, and no one knows or cares who anyone's grandfather was.

After reading the book, I looked up Booth Tarkington's biography on-line. I have a hunch The Magnificent Ambersons has a strong autobiographical component. Many aspects of George Amberson Minafer's life mirror Tarkington's -- right down to the age the character would have been at about the same time in American history -- so it's possible the author was looking back at his younger self and thinking, "what an ass I was!"

The novel is quite readable, although I found myself growing increasingly impatient with George. When was the young idiot finally going to get a clue? Could any human being actually be that dense and socially tone deaf? And then I remembered my young cousin raised by a single mom who thought her darling daughter was the center of the entire universe -- and realized Tarkington had indeed captured perfectly the mental processes of a egoistic young adult who had rarely heard the word No.

Tarkington was an extremely popular writer who knew how to tell stories that resonated with a wide audience. His books were best sellers, many were made into plays and movies, and the material continues to be re-worked today. The most recent version of The Magnificent Ambersons was televised in 2002, with James Cromwell playing Major Amberson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Amberson Minafer, but I think I'll check Netflix for the 1942 version directed by Orson Welles instead.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

No surprise to me

This article in the Washington Post this morning comes as no surprise to me. In my long and checkered work history I've had to file for unemployment benefits a number of times, and twice have had employers contest the claim.

It's hard enough to lose a job. But for a growing proportion of U.S. workers, the troubles really set in when they apply for unemployment benefits.

More than a quarter of people applying for such claims have their rights to the benefit challenged as employers increasingly act to block payouts to former workers.

The first time it happened I was working for a company that was in a death spiral. It was a privately owned firm, and the owner had decided he'd rather snort the company's assets than make payroll. All it took was one paycheck bouncing, and about half a dozen of us walked. Maybe the cocaine had addled his brain enough that he was still in denial his company was tanking, but he appealed and based it on the claim we'd quit for no reason.

Fortunately, the unemployment commission quickly ruled that the one fundamental right of every employee is to be paid for the work he or she does -- when the paychecks bounced, we had cause for leaving.

The second time it happened the situation was a little murkier, the company was much, much bigger, and it took a formal hearing with a state unemployment commission referee and several attorneys (one for me, a whole herd for the large, nasty corporation), but in the end I got my checks. One of these days I'll have to do a post on how I managed to cost Harrahs half a mil in attorneys' fees . . . bottom line to management, (and this is just focusing on purely pragmatic issues and ignoring the moral and ethical): never ever screw over your workers no matter how humble the position they may have in the organization because you can never know just how stubborn they're going to be about screwing you in return. Payback is a bitch.

As the whole nasty process unfolded, I learned anecdotally that the large nasty corporation (aka Harrahs) had the reputation in Reno of never, ever letting anyone collect unemployment insurance benefits no matter what the reason was for the employee's departure. Didn't matter, for example, if you were let go because business was slow and they were overstaffed -- they'd still tell the unemployment commission the employee was fired for cause. I've worked for some truly crappy companies and/or bosses over the years, but as companies go Harrahs still tops the list as being the worst. After all, unlike the cokehead's small business, no one in management could use drug addiction as an excuse.

It's Darwin Day

200 years old, although he doesn't look a day over 31 in the portrait. I think this calls for cake.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Down and out and under the bridge

Think I've mentioned before that my walk to and from work includes crossing Peachtree Creek. The creek crossing is a four-lane bridge, sidewalks on each side, built in 1967 (if I'm remembering the date on one end correctly, with the creek itself maybe 20 feet below the span midway across. I'm not real sure just what the terrain is like immediately under the bridge, but it's become obvious that more and more people are living there. And I'm not talking camping out for a day or two -- I'm talking something that's starting to resemble the shanty towns you see in Save the Children commercials. Residents have even put up wind chimes.

I saw an estimate a few months ago that there were approximately 6,000 homeless people in the Atlanta area. I find myself wondering what the actual numbers are. There are a lot of bridges in this city, as well as abandoned buildings and other odd corners. How many squats are out there that no one knows about?

If government -- federal, state, or local -- is looking for projects to stimulate the economy, maybe some low income housing would be a good place to start.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Dark Ages return

I thought these vanished several centuries ago. Guess I was wrong:

In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.

I knew you could pay for masses to have the church help pray you into heaven; I didn't realize they were still peddling plenary indulgences, too.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Chattahoochee NRA: Sope Creek

Yesterday was drop dead gorgeous here in Atlanta, warm and sunny, so we decided to spend some time wandering around the Sope Creek unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreational Area. The Sope Creek unit is absolutely riddled with a maze of trails, both official and social. The official trails are, in general, pretty easy walking. The social trails, which are so well established it can be difficult to distinguish them from the NPS sanctioned trails, get a little trickier. Park management has markers at each official intersection, though, so if a person is paying attention it's fairly easy to figure out where you are in the maze. You can do long loops, short loops, or something in between, to wend your way from the parking lot to Sopes Creek, the papermill ruins, or the river, depending on how ambitious you're feeling.
Given my strong interest in industrial archeology, we picked the shortest route possible from the parking area to the papermill. It's an impressive set of ruins. According to the book-on-a-stick in the parking area the mill first operated before the Civil War, was burned down by Union forces, rebuilt in 1871, and operated until 1902. NPS has done a nice job of stabilizing it.

The complex is fairly large -- there are ruins on both sides of the creek. The photos don't really give a good sense of scale. The one quibble I had was the site could use a good interpretive wayside, something that included historic photos or a map showing exactly how big the complex was when it was in operation and explaining briefly how a 19th century papermill operated.

There were two books on sticks in the parking lot, both placed by the Georgia Historical Commission, and standing more or less side by side. Odds are, though, that few people notice the markers, especially when they're located over half a mile from the actual ruins. I was moderately amused by the text. The one focusing on the papermill's history described it as being located on Sope Creek. The other one, which focused on a Civil War skirmish, called it Soap Creek.

After admiring the ruins, we did some looping around before heading back to the parking lot. One of these days we'll have to go back and try wandering into a different part of the maze and seeing how things look closer to the river.


This could be me . . . I have a bad habit of wandering into bookstores and becoming mesmerized by something I've pulled off the shelf. Click on the cartoon to see the whole thing.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Quilting and recycling

Nerf was nice enough to send me a photo of the jeans quilt I made for her birthday last month. I've been making quilts using recycled jeans for many years now, but this is the most complex pattern to date. Wasn't able to get a decent photo myself due to lack of floor and/or wall space. The quilt is approximately queen-size.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I am not a fan of "The Biggest Loser," the freak show that NBC subjects television viewers to on a regular basis. The parts of the weight loss experience that the public seems to focus on the most are the ones that are the ones that give the program its freak show aura: the public shaming, the weighing contestants in while they're dressed in skin tight garments that emphasize every roll of flab, the boot camp atmosphere.

Besides, having been through my own fair share of failed diet and exercise programs -- is there a woman in the U.S. who at some point or another hasn't fallen prey to Atkins or Nutri-System or Jenny Craig? -- and witnessed just about everyone I know also succumbing to counting Weight Watchers points or cutting back on carbs, I know what the success rate for most weight loss programs is. Abysmal. Something like 95% of people who go on diets gain every pound back with a few more tacked on for good measure within a year or two. Most people simply do not have the ability (metabolism? time? the money to hire a full-time personal trainer?) to make the permanent lifestyle changes needed to keep the weight off, especially when their bodies have been genetically programmed to be a little more zaftig than contemporary society believes they should be. Humans spent millennia evolving to survive periodic famines and have only had a few generations, and then primarily in the industrialized Western nations, to adapt to a different environment, one rife with Big Macs and chili fries and sedentary lifestyles, so it's not surprising more of us are fat.

But that's kind of a digression. What got me thinking about "The Biggest Loser" and dieting in general this morning was a New York Times article about the show and the contestants' relationship with food -- in a paradoxical way, they don't have one. Obviously, they're consuming a lot of it. No one gets to be 400 pounds without eating something. The trouble apparently is that they're treating what they consume like air -- they inhale it without thinking about it or even enjoying it very much. And almost to a person none of the contestants can cook. The article notes that contestants don't even really have a decent sense of taste.
"The food that got them to this point is salty, sweet, fatty, crunchy,” said Bob Harper, a trainer on the show since the first season in 2004, describing the fast food and snacks that are the steady diet of most contestants. “They lose their taste buds, they lose their hunger cues and they want what they want when they want it.”

Second, they learn fundamental cooking skills that they — like many Americans — have lost, or never had.

“Most of them do not have the basic ability to cook a meal at home and very little understanding of how much fat and salt is in restaurant food,” said Cheryl Forberg, the show’s nutritionist, “even on the supposedly healthy part of the menu.”
It's an interesting article that includes little gems like this quote from a contestant:
“The kitchen was full of weird ingredients like quinoa and kale."
Somehow I never thought of kale as weird. Just green.

Bottom line for the article is that people who do their own cooking instead of relying on convenience items (takeout Chinese, pizza, McDonald's, snack foods like Cheetos and Keebler cookies) are almost always going to be eating healthier than folks who don't. You build a relationship with food, you learn to savor flavors and textures, you pay more attention to what you're eating, and you're more likely to know when you've had enough. I don't know if I'd go as far as the article does in claiming spending more time in a kitchen will result in less time on a StairMaster (especially when I spend zero time on StairMasters now), but you never know.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Best description of Tom Daschle ever

Courtesy of Matt Taibbi in his Rolling Stone blog:
In Washington there are whores and there are whores, and then there is Tom Daschle. Tom Daschle would suck off a corpse for a cheeseburger.
I was not saddened to see Daschle bite the dust; I thought he was a lousy choice to head Health & Human Services to begin with. He's been collecting huge speaking fees from the healthcare industry since he left the Senate. He'd be about as likely to reform the health care system in this country as Dick Cheney is to call for registering firearms or banning high fence hunting.

Looking for God in all the wrong places?

I have a confession to make. I used to be a believer, and have the photos to prove it. I willingly sat through two years of confirmation classes, giving up Saturday mornings to cheerfully learn to parrot the answers in Luther's Small Catechism, professed my faith publicly, and then went on to teach Sunday school for a year or two.

I'm not sure why. My family wasn't particularly religious, at least not on my mother's side. My paternal grandmother was active in the Methodist church and, as long as we lived near her, she did push her grandchildren into going to the Methodist Sunday school. My mother's family, on the other hand . . . they weren't open nonbelievers, but they also were unusual among nonsocialist/apolitical Finns in that they didn't go to church. My mother said that when she asked her mother, the grandmother I never knew, why they didn't go to church her mother explained it simply as "In Finland the government said we had to go to church. Here we have a choice. We choose not to go."

After we moved far enough away from my father's mother that she no longer was a day-to-day influence, my parents left it strictly up to us kids if we wanted to go to church or not. So we kind of religion shopped. For a couple years I tagged along with a friend to the Baptist church she attended -- that stopped about the time the pastor began harassing me about "finding the Lord" and getting baptized. Given my water phobias, there was no way I was about to fake being saved if the end result was going to be full immersion in a giant bathtub in front of the entire congregation.

So then I toyed with Catholicism briefly. I loved the rituals, the Latin mass, the incense. Didn't understand any of it, of course, but thought it all looked cool. And then for some reason I found myself going to the Finnish Lutheran church that my friend Trudy Luoma (she's the brunette on the end of the front row in the photo) attended. In retrospect, it was pretty strange. Granted, Trudy and I were friends, but it not exactly in the BFF category. Our major connection was through 4-H (yes, I do come from a very small town). I think we wound up working on projects (Wildflowers, Forestry) that required long bike trips out to the project leader's house. From pressing turk's cap lilies together to deciding to be Lutheran -- definitely not the typical spiritual journey, if there is such a thing. Eventually, of course, I lost my religion (or it lost me), not long after supposedly finding it.

In any case, what got me started thinking about religion this week was the book I'm currently reading: Roadside Religion: The Search for the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith. It is an intriguing book. Back when I was still thinking of myself as a sociologist I had a strong interest in spontaneous memorialization (the cross by the side of the road marking an accident site) and social definitions of sacred space.* Beal looks at larger scale endeavors -- the 11-acre Garden of Crosses in southern Alabama, Holy Land USA near Bedford, Virginia -- that range from purely vernacular to slickly commercial (Holy Land Experience in Florida).

Beal's descriptions of a few of the sites makes it fairly clear the promoters have either never read the Bible or are willfully misunderstanding the New Testament. There's something truly sick about the Holy Land Experience's daily (fake) crucifixions -- and something even sicker about the park visitors who are ticked off when the event, which takes place outdoors, is cancelled due to rain. You know a religion has become a death cult when the believers seem to be more interested in pain and suffering than they are in redemption and hope. If there really was a God, I think he'd be more than a little pissed off that his so-called followers obsess so much about his death without bothering to celebrate his life.

On the other hand, there's the Garden of Crosses, a purely vernacular effort, the life's work of basically one person, that also obsesses about death -- it is a garden of crosses, after all, 11 acres worth, loaded with messages warning passersby they're going to BURN IN HELL HELL HELL. Nonetheless, Beal's descriptions make the Garden of Crosses feel sacred in a way that Holy Land Experience does not. Maybe it's the motivations of the people behind them. The man responsible for Garden of Crosses is a true believer who worries about humanity in general. He doesn't want anyone going to Hell; he wants everyone saved. He means well, he's just slightly nuts by conventional standards in the way he's going about spreading the message. On the other hand, the Holy Land Experience wants you to buy a day pass, souvenir tee-shirts, postcards, mouse pads, salt and pepper shakers, and whatever other piece of made-in-China crap they can sucker you into spending money on. They're not selling indulgences or relics, but you get the distinct impression that they are the direct descendants of the folks Luther had in mind back in 1517.

As for the overall effect of the book on me, I'm feeling the urge for a road trip to Cullman, Alabama. I've been hearing about the Ave Maria Grotto for years; maybe it's time to go see it in person. A miniature Vatican City that incorporates used lipstick tubes into its construction can't be any stranger than Fred Smith's Clydesdales with the beer bottle manes.

[*I don't believe in supernatural entities, but I do believe there are socially created sacred spaces, places, and objects. ]

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Just wondering

Why don't kids in post-apocalyptic fiction get the measles? A few days ago I finished reading S. M. Stirling's Scourge of God. It's the fifth book in a series, all set in a universe where something really strange happened in 1998 that basically repealed the laws of physics. Electricity stopped working, even gunpowder lost its explosive force.

Naturally, the first book (Dies the Fire) was full of the typical OMG post-apocalyptic coping with disaster without modern technology scenarios: hordes of people dying from starvation, for example, and a few smart people realizing that staying in the middle of a city (Portland, Oregon) that no longer works is not a real good idea and doing the classic bugging out to the boondocks to hunker down until the worst of the chaos has ended. A few people keep their heads to the extent of liberating farm animals (draft horses, cattle) from a living history exhibit. Dies the Fire is obviously heavily influenced by classic science fiction, e.g., Lucifer's Hammer, along with an overt homage to LOTR, and contains the usual obligatory plot elements. There are scavengers who resort to cannibalism and eventually (as the series progresses) form bands referred to as "eaters," for example, and the classic clashes occurring between The Reluctant Ethical Hero and The Sadistic Power-Hungry Tyrant. Stirling ends up having the Reluctant Hero do just about everything except pull a sword from a stone before he and the Tyrant meet in battle.

But none of that is what has me wondering. I know the rules for post-apocalyptic fiction; Stirling follows them all as the series progresses, including channeling some Stephen King ala The Stand and having some unspecified preternatural Ultimate Evil hovering just off-stage and lusting for humanity's soul. He hits all his marks and does so quite deftly. The books are a good read, well-crafted and entertaining. I'm a little annoyed with Stirling for not making the last two books (The Sunrise Lands and Scourge of God) stand alone the way the first three (Dies the Fire, Meeting at Corvallis, and The Protector's War) were, but I enjoyed reading them.

No, what I want to know is why no one gets measles? Or mumps? Or polio? Or maybe even influenza? They started off with stashes of antibiotics, but vaccines never got mentioned. Why aren't women dying in childbirth or from childbed fever? The latest book is set 22 years past-Change; where are the infectious diseases, viral and bacterial? There's a lot of battling going on -- why aren't there a bunch of one-armed or one-legged veterans hobbling around because it was either amputate or lose a limb to gangrene? I want some germs in action, or I want an explanation of how they're managing to manufacture antibiotics using the equivalent of 16th century technology.

Oh well, maybe in the next book Stirling will have someone stumble across a cache of Georgia peanut butter, decide that despite over two decades of sitting in a warehouse it's still edible, and the series will get the bloody flux that's been missing so far.