Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I had the weirdest experience yesterday, a definite first for me. I fainted. I was out cold for at least a minute, maybe longer.

Fortunately, I was already close to flat on my back when it happened. If a person's going to faint, I'm guessing in a Red Cross donation chair is a good place for it to happen. I've had a few moments in the past while donating blood where I started feeling a little light-headed, but passing out cold was a new one for me. I probably shouldn't have looked when the phlebotomist was switching from the bag to the test tubes.  Blood doesn't faze me much when it's someone else's, but when it's my own. . .

In other news, it turns out I'm not the only person who spends time pondering life's most important questions, like when the hyphen can drop out of a compound word. Large Nameless Agency actually invested several hours recently in a training (workshop?) devoted to just that question. Well, not just that question -- we also looked at commas, semi-colons, and the infamous en dash. Heretic that I am, I think en dashes should go the way of the dodo, but my fellow editors apparently love them. (There's something very spooky about witnessing adults wax so enthusiastic about punctuation. I appreciate a well-placed comma as much as the next person, but there are limits. I'd say they'd been sniffing the wite-out too long if we still used the stuff.) Bottom line: language changes all the time, hyphens will drop out, but we editors will not be the ones to decide that burning question. We will instead be as conservative as humanly possible, dragging our feet and kicking and screaming whenever it's suggested that grammar is mutable. Or at least my colleagues will -- I'm not nearly that hardcore.

Tomorrow I'll be escaping from Large Nameless Agency for a few days. The S.O. and I are heading for Texas to celebrate Thanksgiving with the Younger Daughter. It's odd how quickly some things become routine -- we will be going up to Natchitoches again on Saturday for the annual craft show that's part of that city's Festival of Lights and it's feeling like a family tradition after only two years. Maybe this will be the year when we get the family photo taken with the alligator, even if the 'gator itself is rather a disappointment (discovered last November that it's not very big and has its mouth duct-taped shut). Weather permitting, on Friday we're going to pack a picnic lunch and visit the dog cemetery -- it's somewhere up in northern Sabine County and is apparently the resting place of beloved fox hounds. We won't lunch at the cemetery; the plan is to go over to one of the recreation areas on Toledo Bend where there are picnic tables.

I finished reading Dr. Zhivago yesterday. Up until I picked up the book at the library on Saturday, the only thing I knew about Dr. Zhivago was that Omar Sharif had starred in the movie, which I've never seen. Oh, and "Lara's Song" (aka "Somewhere My Love"), which definitely hints at a plotline entailing multiple Kleenexs being expended if viewed on the big screen -- although the S.O. tells me he fell asleep when he tried watching it in a theater back in the 1960s, so who knows? I do know Dr. Zhivago is a typical Russian novel, replete with the usual multiple names all referring to the same person depending on who's doing the speaking, multiple odd subplots kind of working their way around each other, and a narrator's voice that at times has a person wondering just how autobiographical some of the details were for Pasternak. It's also, of course, given that it's set during the Russian revolution and the Russian civil war, remarkably depressing. On the other hand, I read it in less than a week, making it surprisingly light reading for a Russian novel. I had thought it would last me past Thanksgiving; now it's looking like Alice Walker and the latest Bitch will be going into the suitcase instead.

[We will not be deep frying our turkey -- it's going into the oven to be cooked in a very traditional, low-risk manner.]

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Weather and politics

It's raining this morning.  No real news there -- the drought broke quite a few months ago, and it's rained a lot in Atlanta lately.  Of course, since the record rainfalls and flooding in September (when the above photo was taken), every time rain is predicted now there's a lot of musing on local news about whether or not there might be flooding again. 

There will be, of course.  The only real question is whether or not anyone will have learned anything from the last time.  Probably not.

I finished reading Storm World recently and am currently reading a  theme issue of Mother Jones that focuses on climate change and environmental disaster. It's scary stuff.  California's Central Valley, long viewed as an agricultural Eden, is turning into a dust bowl due to lack of water for irrigation -- and there's no water for irrigation because the snowpack in the mountains irrigation relies isn't as deep as it used to be.  Farmers are clamoring for water and blaming government policies for their woes, but it's real hard to give the farms something that no longer exists. Island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives are facing possibly vanishing if ocean levels rise very much.

And how are we, as in humanity in general, dealing with the growing body of evidence that's announcing loud and clear that the climate is changing, and changing in unpredictable ways? Even the deniers, the folks who say humans have no influence on the climate, have switched from "it's not happening" to "it's part of a natural cycle."  The way people always cope with bad news:  denial, willful ignorance, and procrastination, both as individuals and as governments.  And then when we do notice, we Americans tend to think we can shop our way out of environmental disaster:  buy a Prius instead of  Hummer, look for the energy star on new appliances, get reusable shopping bags, stop buying bottled water and get a Pur filter for the kitchen faucet.  There are exceptions, like the folks involved with 350.org,  but not as many as there should be.  Politically, of course, the Obama administration isn't doing much better than Bush did -- the big difference seems to be that Obama is at least smart enough to make some noises like he takes climate change seriously.  Doesn't mean the US will do anything substantive, though, because even if Obama wanted to, Congress is going to throw up roadblocks. 

On a purely personal level, the retirement bunker in upper Michigan is looking better all the time.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Adventures in bureaucracy, 2009

The internal blog here at Large Nameless Agency did a question of the week recently asking people to provide their favorite Dilbert or Dilbert-like quotes or experiences. There were some doozies. Managers who said things like "We're LNA. We don't do science." (Definitely a head/desk moment for anyone hearing that one.)  Managers whose solution to complaints about excessive paperwork was to generate still more forms and procedures.  Co-workers who responded to e-mail requests with answers like "send me your e- mail address and I'll get that information to you."  

My own favorite "Dilbert" moments didn't happen here at LNA.  They all happened back when I was working as a part-time clerk in the office for the married students' housing at Michigan's toughest university.  Our manager, the equivalent of the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert, could have stepped right out of the strip.  He was also one of the cheapest people on the planet.

We all took turns bringing goodies for the break room (cookies, brownies, donuts).  We always knew when the boss had brought in the snacks:  the packages had the prices crossed out with black magic marker because he'd gotten them at the Metz bakery outlet store.  He always "forgot" Secretary's Day -- he'd bring in flowers, but a day late -- that way he could get the sale roses.

I could go on -- the man's basic cheapness and desire to shortchange his subordinates went well beyond stale donuts -- but suffice to say that's one job I've never regretted walking away from. (Walking?! Not exactly. I ran.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Controversy du jour

Breast cancer screening. 

It's been interesting watching the uproar.  Once again the American populace is demonstrating its inability to understand simple English -- a recommendation is not the same thing as a requirement -- and its capacity to contradict itself.  Last week the airwaves were still full of bloviation about rationing if the government gets involved in health care so we must trust the private sector; this week the airwaves are full of bloviation about the evil, evil insurance companies and how they'll use the new guidelines as a reason to deny services.  (Of course, a few people are ranting about this being an example of what we can expect under Obama-care, irrationality in action.)

The airwaves are also full of people rattling off their personal anecdotes, some of which actually serve to confirm that the new recommendations might be spot on.  Women, for example, who argued for sticking with the annual mammogram while simultaneously describing how they found their cancer accidentally, i.e., noticed a lump, and then had a mammogram -- so the mammogram saved their lives.  Which is probably true, but it wasn't an annual screening mammogram; it was one they asked for after noticing something that for them was abnormal.  (The most prominent example of that particular experience is probably Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.)  Good Morning America just gave air time to a woman in her 20s who's arguing for annual screening because a mammogram found her cancer, totally ignoring the fact that young woman was not yet in the age group affected by the recommendations. Obviously, routine screening was not what found her cancer. 

I'm not a big fan of using anecdotal evidence myself -- the plural of anecdote is most definitely not data -- but if I were, I'd trot out the handful of breast cancer sufferers I've known and point out that not a single one of them had her cancer detected by early screening, either mammogram or routine breast self exam.  In several cases, a sexual partner noticed something odd, in others, the woman herself spotted something while showering or putting on deodorant.  Oddly enough, none of the cancer survivors the MSM have trotted out so far have named routine screening either. . . they all went for a mammogram after noticing something didn't seem right, not before. 

So should we stick with annual screening and pushing BSE anyway?  I don't know.  I'm enough of a nerd that I did the research for myself years ago (family history, various risk factors, comparisons with survival rates here and in Europe where the screening schedule is different), and decided no way in hell was I putting my tits in a vise as often as my doctors were recommending.  Two years apart?  Heck no, I've decided three sounds good.  But that's me.  My body, my life, and my choice to avoid a test I view as (for me) an uncomfortable waste of time.  Someone with a different family tree and risk factors might look at the available evidence and make a different decision.  But whatever decision anyone makes, it would be nice if it could be made dispassionately and not colored by MSM-generated hysteria.

UpdateScience Based Medicine has a good post up now on the topic.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I should have listened to my mother

I'm feeling like a walking cliche this morning.  It hasn't been that many years since I mocked my elders for seemingly having nothing to talk about but their health -- the various operations, the specialists they were seeing, the battery of medications they took -- and now it's payback time.  I've become one of them.  The pill bottles are proliferating, and conversations with friends focus way too much health issues. 

The latest for me is my back.  It's betrayed me.  I would have halfway understood having back trouble if I did anything that was remotely strenuous.  Screwing up my back while I was still working for the Park Service and scrambling in and out of boats, bushwhacking trying to find abandoned buildings, or doing something -- anything! -- that required some effort wouldn't bother me much.  Ditto if I'd managed to screw it up at home, even if it was by reaching for something on a closet shelf.  No such luck. 

What's done my back in is several decades of office work.  Eight hours a day in front of a computer while sitting in chairs that don't fit right coupled with a lifetime of poor posture.  End result:  pinched nerve and strange pains.  No, that's not quite right:  End result -- multiple visits to a physical therapist in an attempt to unlearn a lifetime of bad habits and learn some "trunk strengthening" exercises. 

I definitely should have listened to my mother when she kept nagging me to sit up straight. 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sniveling cowards

I've believed for a long time that most conservatives are thoroughly craven, cowards to the core, and afraid of their own shadows.  They're terrified of change, terrified of anyone who doesn't look like themselves, and indeed are even terrified of their own neighbors.  Watching C-SPAN this weekend didn't change my mind.

The news that shaped much of the discussion, both by the on-camera experts and pundits and the folks calling in, was the announcement that the US Justice Department will place Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators on trial in federal court in New York City on charges they were involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I swear every single right-winger, both on camera and via telephone or Twitter, was practically paralytic with fear. 

Fear of what?  Another terrorist attack if we put these guys on trial, among other things.  Will not trying Mohammed et al. prevent another terrorist attack?  Obviously, no.  There are always going to be fanatics out there, some in this country and some overseas, who decide they hate something or someone (the government, family planning clinics, banks and/or bankers) and then act on that hatred. 

I've always thought we as a nation have made a huge mistake in the way we dealt with the 9/11 attacks.  We elevated a group of low-life thugs to the level of being military equals instead of labeling them as the criminals they are.  We helped turn Al Qaeda into heroes, freedom fighters protecting Islam from the Christian crusaders, when they should have been framed as common criminals who got lucky.  (Osama bin Laden is on record on saying they never thought the towers would fall; they also didn't believe they'd succeed in hijacking all four planes.)  We helped legitimize them within the Muslim world when we should have been doing the opposite.  Trying Mohammed and his fellow lowlifes in criminal court instead of in front of a military tribunal is a good first step towards changing their image. 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Who says there's never any good news?

From the New York Times:
Lou Dobbs, the longtime CNN anchor whose anti-immigration views have made him a TV lightning rod, said Wednesday that he is leaving the cable news channel effective immediately.
Yesterday's show was his last.  Anyone else want to bet he's on Fox by Monday?

Update: The Onion has the reason why Dobbs departed so abruptly.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Epistlatory novels

I just finished reading another epistlatory novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society*, and was struck again by the conceit of that particular writing technique.  For some reason, it always strikes me as the lazy way to write a book.  Cobbling together a novel by stringing together letters, journal entries, or blog posts allows the author to skip over the messy bits that can prove troublesome:  describing the setting, for example, or creating believable dialogue.

It also means, of course, that it's easy to pad out the page count -- lots of white space in the breaks between the letters (see novel mentioned above for a great example of that tactic) -- or to blame choppiness or uneven quality on deliberate authorial choices rather than weak writing skills.   Additionally, it can be a little off-putting to read, as I have in some novels, letters that contain information that no one in his or her right mind would have included in a letter sent during the historical era when the novel is set.  Chelsea Quinn Yarbro seized upon the letter-writing device a number of years ago for her St. Germain vampire series, and, let's face it, it calls for a tremendous amount of willing disbelief on the part of the reader to ignore the obvious insanity of characters discussing the downsides of being undead in letters being carried by messengers in Catholic Europe in the Middle Ages, especially when those letters are supposedly written in Latin, and the characters writing them are described as already paranoid about being spied on and/or suspected of heresy. (Fortunately for readers addicted to St. Germain since the publication of Hotel Transylvania in 1978, Yarbro salts the letters throughout the novels like the calendar pages one would see in old movies to indicate the passage of time rather than relying on them alone to carry the work.) 

One of the advantages of the epistlatory technique is that it supposedly eliminates the omniscient narrator from the story.  I'm not sure that's true.  After all, someone is picking and choosing which letters, newspaper reports, journal entries, and other material to include to tell the story -- the narrator is always going to be present in some form.  The big question actually isn't the technique -- it's does the narrator, i.e., the book,  have a story worth telling? Some epistlatory novels do, some don't.   

[*Brief review: 100% mind candy; despite its 1946-coming-to-grips-with-the-aftermath-of-WWII setting, the book is basically a piece of lightweight fluff ideal for reading on an airplane or while sitting in a doctor's waiting room. It could have been published by Harlequin.]

Addendum -- total digression:  I am now giving serious thought to changing my profile picture. The Victorian lass above looks a lot better than the demented woman with a pen I have been using.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tunnel vision

Maybe I should have subtitled this post, "It's not all about you." 

We Americans really seem to be lacking the ability to do big picture thinking.  I was listening to C-SPAN this morning and once again was struck by the incredible tunnel vision way too many people display.  Over and over I heard the complaint that health care reform is going to drive up the costs for small businesses so they won't be able to compete.  Several callers, in fact, claimed to be business owners who said having to pay for health insurance would drive up their labor costs and thus they'd lose their competitive edge.

Edge against who?  Who is the competition?  I can understand complaints about labor costs going up if you're manufacturing widgets to sell to Walmart, because then the competition is child labor in a third world sweatshop working for pennies a day, but if you're a construction contractor?  A hotel owner?  Someone who runs a local grocery store or tire shop?  News flash for those folks:  everyone else's costs are going to go up, too.  The playing field will actually be more level than before -- because the employers who had been trying to offer health benefits, i.e., the small business owners with some compassion and/or sense of decency, willl no longer be competing with businesses whose idea of health benefits had been keeping a box of band-aids in a desk drawer. 

The complaints about health care costs, the mandatory insurance payments, remind me a great deal of the same complaints small businesses engage in every time there's a discussion about raising the minimum wage.  They all howl as though their individual business is the only one that is being forced to raise pay rates -- they behave as though their roofing company or restaurant or local supermarket is going to so screwed because everyone else will still be paying the old wages.  It never seems to occur to them that if they're being forced to do something, so is everyone else.  Nothing's changed in terms of competitive edge.  If there is an added cost, it's industry-wide.

It's a good thing I'm not a C-SPAN moderator.  I would never be able to resist the urge to tell people to STFU and stop sounding like whining teenage prima donnas. 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Looking for a land that never was: Whitopia

I just finished reading a brief article on white flight, the growth of the homogeneous exurbs flourishing in Utah and Idaho, in the October 2009 issue of American Prospect.  The author of the piece, Rich Benjamin, has written a book on the topic -- Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America -- that, to be honest, I'll probably never read.  Normally I eschew judging books by their covers, but I have a hunch Mr. Benjamin is simply retelling a story that's an American classic:  the grass is always greener (or the neighbors more like you) someplace else.

As for Whitopia, I've lived there.  I grew up there, spent most of my formative years in the upper Midwest where the only people of color a person ever saw were the Pullman and dining car attendants working on the trains that rolled through town and the Native Americans who back then spent a great deal of time busily denying they were Native American (easy to do when your last name was Heikinen or LaFernier).  No doubt to folks burnt out on urban life and looking for a nostalgic, safe, family friendly place to live it looked great.  It probably still looks great to anyone fleeing diversity -- last time I was home there was a fair amount of discussion revolving around the shocking fact there were now at least three (count 'em -- three!!) black prison guards working at Baraga Super Max. 

I can see where for some stressed out white dude looking at the White House and wondering where his country went, Baraga County, Michigan would seem like a utopia.  All those white people, small churches, sense of community, . . .  all very bucolic and reminiscent of kinder, gentler, whiter times.  Everyone thinking just like him, looking just like him, sharing the same values. . . 

It would be pure fantasy, of course.  The small towns I lived in until I went wandering off to college and the military way back when may have looked like Mayberry, RFD, but they were no more safe havens, trouble-free rural paradises, than today's small towns are.  Most murders are committed by acquaintances, so moving to Whitopia isn't going to stop your spouse from killing you.  Besides, serial killers live in small towns, too -- just ask the Wisconsites who remember Ed Gein.  Most burglaries are committed by teenagers, the kids down the street, so your garage is still going to get broken into.  Amazing amounts of domestic meth are manufactured in small towns -- ask the law enforcement folks in Iowa and Wisconsin who are dealing with that headache now -- so you're not going to be able to leave that particular fear behind by loading the U-Haul and getting out of L.A. or Phoenix.  You can't escape reality by running from it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Another reason for looking forward to retirement

and getting out of Georgia:

Forbes Magazine has rated Atlanta as the most toxic city in the country. 

Part of me is thinking, well, no shit, Sherlock. Then I realized the article is referring to the physical environment, not the politics or the crime rates.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Should I feel guilty?

Should I be feeling guilty because my reaction to a co-worker being gone all week on funeral leave is relief? The woman is noted for her snark and annoys the bejesus out of me, so should I feel bad instead of relieved that I'm getting a 5-day break?