Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review: So Cold A Sky

To say that Karl Bohnak loves snow is a bit like saying that Charlie Sheen likes to party. Bohnak, chief meteorologist at With Luck You See TV (WLUC-TV6) in Marquette, Michigan, claims to be telling upper Michigan weather stories in general, but then fills the first three quarters of the book with cold and snow: Father Marquette dodging ice floes on Lake Superior in August, Father Menard trekking hundreds of miles on snowshoes, ditto Bishop Baraga, as well as various miners, farmers, and mail carriers all being forced to bust through snowdrifts for what feels like most of the year. Henry Schoolcraft, for example, apparently rarely saw a sunny summer day in his years in Michigan, from the time he arrived at Sault Ste. Marie in the 1820s until he left the state in 1841, just lots of snow and ice and blizzards.  

Then again, considering that we Yoopers like to claim that upper Michigan has only two seasons -- winter, and three months of rough sledding -- maybe Bohnak's book isn't particularly unbalanced. The good weather stories do all seem to happen in the winter, or close to it. Ships trapped in unseasonably early ice, ships locked out of harbors by unseasonably late ice, snowdrifts burying houses, people freezing to death (or coming close to it) in blizzards, . . . there is no doubt that the U.P. can be a cold, cold place, and Mr. Bohnak loves every frigid minute. Besides, it's a lot more interesting to read about 20-foot snowdrifts burying most of the houses in Ishpeming in November than it is to read about one person's chimney getting blasted by lightning in July.  

Despite inspiring the urge to quaff numerous cups of hot chocolate -- or maybe because of it -- So Cold a Sky is an entertaining read. It also appears to have been competently researched.  Mr. Bohnak cites archival sources from around the U.P. (various historical societies, Northern Michigan University, the archdiocese, and others) and admits freely when and where the gaps in the written records occur. He hits the high points of U.P. history, e.g., the invention of the solar compass and the opening of the iron range, and manages to cover the tragedies (forest fires, shipwrecks) without sounding overly bleak. On a personal level, I was a little intrigued to learn in retrospect that various weather events that struck me at the time as being just ordinary U.P. weather were in fact record-breakers of one sort or another (e.g., coldest average summer), but maybe a meteorologist worries more about statistics than the people actually living through the blizzards do.    

Membership fees

I started working on our federal income tax return a few days ago. Did the first pass through it, and had a whoa, that can't be right reaction. No refund. The S.O. and I have almost always managed to calculate withholding so that the IRS ends up writing us a check, not vice versa. Some years it turns out to be an unexpectedly large windfall, like last year when we scored big thanks to the Making Work Pay credit and a credit for the sales tax we paid on a new car in 2009; some years it's just enough that I breathe a sigh of relief that we squeaked by again. 

Let me make something clear. I don't object to paying taxes. I am not happy that a big chunk of what I pay into the federal budget goes to pay for overpriced, unnecessary, and often obsolete before it's even deployed military hardware and useless, bloody wars, but just on general principles I don't mind paying taxes. It's been said that the only thing that hurts more than paying income tax is not paying income tax, and I tend to agree. I'd rather be taxed than poor or unemployed. Paying taxes above and beyond what was already withheld means we're doing well. 

Furthermore, although maybe it's just another sign I'm still a hopeless idealist, I view taxes as the price we pay for being able to live in a semi-civilized country. As Franklin Roosevelt said, "Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society." We pay taxes and in exchange we get to drive on paved roads, send our kids to (for the most part) decent schools, eat foods that (also for the most part) are not contaminated with anything too disgusting or unsafe, enjoy camping and recreation in public parks and forests, and so on. I'm enough an adult to recognize that a lot of the things we take for granted wouldn't exist without government dollars and oversight.

Unfortunately, it appears I'm in the minority in this country, because it seems like every time I turn on the tv I'm treated to some idiot telling me the only way to solve various problems is to cut taxes. Roads and bridges are crumbling? Solution: cut taxes so there's even less money to pay for repairs. Classrooms overcrowded? Solution: cut taxes so there's even less money to hire teachers. Feeling paranoid about crime? Solution: cut taxes so police departments have to furlough officers and reduce patrols.* There is this amazingly pervasive belief that, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. You really can have something for nothing. Just invoke St. Ronnie (who actually presided over one of the largest tax increases in history, but why let boring facts interfere with a good fantasy?), blame illegal immigrants and greedy unions, and all will be well.

[*True story: a few years ago, one of the counties in Upper Michigan was having budget woes and put a limit on how many miles per week the sheriff's department deputies were allowed to drive the patrol cars, basically one tank's worth. Local residents complained bitterly, but continued to vote down every millage request that would have helped the department's budget.] 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Another trip down Nostalgia Lane

The current fuss about Taco Bell's mystery meat reminded me of a brouhaha back in the early '80s -- we were living in California then, right in the cross hairs of the San Fernando Valley (we were about two blocks from the intersection of Roscoe and Sepulveda), and Jack In The Box got hit with a scandal:  their "beef" hamburgers were actually kangaroo meat.  To this day, the S.O. and I refer to that chain as "Jack in the Pouch."

Considering how cheap Taco Bell's products are, and how minuscule the amount of "meat" is that's on any one item, I'm not sure why anyone is shocked that the teaspoon of ground meat product is actually mostly something other than beef.  What were customers expecting? 100% ground sirloin?  After the Jack in the Pouch incident, some innocuous filler made from soy or seaweed is fine with me.

And, yes, I know kangaroo is a common menu item in Australia, and maybe if I'd known what was actually in the Jack in the Pouch burgers it wouldn't have fazed me at all. . . but they really shouldn't have tried sneaking it in.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Missing Winter

Between the book I'm reading -- So Cold a Sky -- and Ranger Bob's historic weather observations from the Apostle Islands, I've got a bad case of homesickness.  I'm really missing Winter. 

I'm not sure when the above photo was taken -- I have a vague memory of it being around the end of March in 1997, but I could be off by a month or two.  It might have been April. 

And, yep, that is a 1970 Ford F-100 sitting there. There's also a 500-gallon propane tank in the photo.  It's between the dog and the truck.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How's your week going?

DeKalb County Courthouse. 8:15 a.m. tomorrow. Jury duty.  I thought my number might be high enough that this time I'd weasel out of it, but when I called to find out if I actually had to report, my number wasn't quite high enough.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guns and public health

What's a reasoned response?

Scenario A:  People start getting sick from eating contaminated peanut butter.  Wide spread public outrage over the fact contaminated peanut butter was sold in the first place, sales of peanut butter plummet, and the plant that sold the stuff is shut down.

Scenario B:  Scientists figure out ingesting lead, whether it's in the form of paint chips or from deposits caused by car exhaust, causes brain damage in children.  Wide spread public health effort to eliminate lead from the environment:  lead is banned as an additive in gasoline, lead-based paint for household use vanishes, massive clean-up efforts are undertaken to get existing lead out of houses and anyplace kids might come into contact with it.

Scenario C:  People get tired of drunk drivers killing people.  Organizations like Students Against Drunk Drivers and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers are founded, penalties for operating under the influence are stiffened, efforts are made to keep people from combining alcohol and operating a motor vehicle, and everyone agrees that it is a bad, bad thing to slam jello shots and then get behind the wheel of a car.

Scenario D:  Lunatic goes on killing rampage using a gun.  Public response?  Mad rush to gun stores to stock up on additional weapons "just in case" the government decides that maybe, just maybe some regulations that might prevent similar lunatics from buying similar weaponry would be a good idea.

And then we Americans wonder why everyone else on the planet thinks we're crazier than shithouse rats.

Back when I was teaching sociology in the '90s, one of the assigned readings for my students was a research article about violence and child death.  One thing that stood out then was an eye opening statement by the researchers that they had wanted to do a comparison study, i.e., look at homicide rates for children on a per capita basis in the United States and other industrialized countries, but they couldn't do it.  You know why?

Because so few children died as a result of violence in countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Canada that it was statistically meaningless. That's not saying it never happened; it just happened so rarely that the national mortality and morbidity databases didn't have a category for homicide deaths of children.  Kids weren't routinely getting picked off by drive-by shootings in Helsinki or Uppsala or Manchester or being beaten to death by caregivers; the very notion of seeing such events as routine was (and is) inconceivable. They would have wound up with a histogram that was basically a bunch of flat lines and one really tall bar. 

In this country, no one blinks an eye when some toddler in Atlanta or Chicago or Los Angeles gets hit by stray bullets.  The last year I could find data for, 19 children under the age of 12 months died from gunshot wounds in the United States -- and not all of them lived in ghettoes, so don't get too comfortable, white America. An interesting study a year or so ago showed the risk of a child dying from gun violence was the same regardless of place of residency in the US; in cities, it's often a by-product of gang violence, while in rural areas it's accidents and suicides. 

We've internalized and normalized that violence -- instead of trying to figure out a way to keep it from happening, we freak out and start foaming at the mouth about tyranny and the blood of patriots when someone suggests doing something sane.  We'd rather have over 30,000 people a year die from gunshot wounds than suffer the inconvenience of a background check at a gun show or being told we can't carry our hunting rifles into a National Park -- we'd have hysterics and heads would roll at the Centers for Disease Control and elsewhere if 30,000 people died from E. coli on alfalfa sprouts, but gun deaths don't faze us at all.

The truly bizarre part, from a strictly logical perspective, is the rationale behind the hysteria about the right to keep and bear arms:  it's to protect ourselves from other people carrying guns.  Okay.  Let's think this through.  If we're worried about measles, what do we do?  We try to eliminate measles from the population; the fewer measles viruses there are in circulation, the less likely we are to get the disease.  If we're worried about contaminated drinking water, what do we do?  We filter the water to keep the bad crap out.  If we're worried about drunks on the highway, what do we do?  Try to get the drunks off the highway.

So if we're worried about getting shot, what do we do?  We pour more guns and ammo into the pool, which can only have the effect of increasing, not decreasing, our chances of getting shot.* 

Like I said, crazier than shithouse rats.  

[*Gun ownership also increases household risk for burglary. Having guns in the house is apparently similar to tossing out chum for sharks.]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, Nerf

The drum corps years . . .  

[I hesitated before using this photo.  My sister is going to look at it and flinch.  Not because it's a picture of her in high school, but because the intervals are so far off in that rifle line. She was (and still is) a drum and bugle corps fanatic.]  

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Once again, someone's said it better than I can

Great post over at Whiskey Fire:
Yes, wingnut rhetoric is dangerous and irresponsible and loony.

But worrying about whether or not wingnut rhetoric is responsible for the Tucson nutjob, well, that's like worrying about shutting the barn door after the horse has been shot and fucked and sold for glue.
Go read the rest.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The joys of being unfriended

I discovered yesterday that another of the wingnut sort-of relatives on my Facebook "friends" list had unfriended me.  No doubt he's sure  he's conveyed the ultimate insult, while all I can think is thank you, thank you, thank you.  No more lunatic spam generated by what the S.O. refers to as the Government-Hating Circle-Jerk Echo Chamber. No more recycled weirdness that's been repeatedly debunked on No more photos of the beach at Santa Monica being used to illustrate claims the ACLU is trying to ban crosses in military cemeteries.  No more disgusting racist photos of urinal cakes decorated with Obama's face or screeds about how dumb Michelle Obama is compared to past first ladies. In short, being unfriended was a gift. It means a noticeable reduction in the amount in the In Box of noxious and/or mindless e-mails packed full of recycled crap that's been passed on by cranks and lunatics since the invention of crayons.

There is a certain amount of sadness, of course, in saying farewell to this "friend."  This particular person is someone I've known since childhood and who I used to consider an actual friend, not just a virtual one.  Back in the '70s we enjoyed some lively conversations -- he was sane then. He used to be a nice guy.  Now he's a mean-spirited bigot.  I'm not sure what sent him down Wingnut Road -- rebellion against his father, who is a lifelong skeptic and Roosevelt Democrat?  Too many years in the military?  Marriage to his second wife, a woman whose family are diehard conservatives?  Whatever it was, he slid over the line into being a closed-minded bigot who spouts racist bilge, tells vile misogynistic jokes, rants against the government and socialism (despite the fact the only secure job he ever had was his Navy career, his current income is a government pension, and he's looking forward to getting on Medicare), and does a lot of Bible-thumping about God's love.  It's a bizarre combination. 

A few days ago Gin and Tacos had a great post up about confronting people when they say something truly stupid or delusional.  You know, when something particularly brain dead comes tripping off someone's tongue, the listener needs to call that person on it, to ask one simple question:  "What the hell is wrong with you?"  It generated a good discussion thread, but a number of commenters mentioned the same thing -- what happens when you ask the question and the person doesn't hear it?  He or she just keeps right on spouting their delusional nonsense.  How many times can anyone try to get someone to engage in an actual dialogue instead of just spouting pre-canned sound bites they've memorized from Beck or Limbaugh or Hannity before a rational person walks away?  Is it possible to have a conversation when there's a wall of deliberate, willful ignorance standing in the way?

This is the second right-wing "friend" who's decided to turn tail and run (unfriending me) instead of trying to engage in an actual dialogue. The first one freaked out and accused me of calling him stupid when I asked him to explain precisely why he cared about New York city zoning and land use issues when he lived in West Virginia. Guess he realized I wasn't really accusing him of ignorance or stupidity -- I was calling him out on his racism.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about language, how the same words can have different meanings depending on context and how different occupations all evolve their own specialized argot.  We go through the "plain language" debate at work all the time.  The government has had a plain language policy since the Clinton era, not that anyone apparently paid much attention to it, and Obama's trying again -- one of the pieces of legislation that was actually passed and signed recently was the Plain Writing Act of 2010.  The act mandates federal agencies use clear language "that the public can understand and use."

This is a battle the journal fights with its authors on a more or less constant basis.  The Subject Matter Experts, aka the authors, all live in fear that their text will be "dumbed down."  There are days when I burn up an amazing amount of time just arguing back and forth with an author over trivia like whether giving the taxonomic designation first (e.g., Neotamias minimus) followed by the common name (least chipmunk) in parentheses, and then referring to the organism by that common name throughout the rest of the paper is acceptable to the author. There are astounding numbers of authors who want the wee beasties referred to as N. minimus every single time, and the words "least chipmunk" never to appear at all -- as if giving the common name of the vector for a disease is going to somehow diminish the fact ground squirrels like chipmunks can carry hantavirus. 

I understand the fear.  I spent time laboring in the academic trenches.  I know full well almost the worst thing a scholar can be accused of is being understandable, i.e., "too journalistic."  (The worst thing that can happen is to have a book turn into a best seller; then you've slid over the line into the dread territory of "popularizer.")  The harder it is to decipher something a researcher wrote, the more convinced his or her peers are that the scholar is a genius.  One of the giants in sociology, Max Weber, is known to have told people who complained about the difficulty of understanding his writing that, in essence, it was up to the readers to figure out what he was saying -- it wasn't his job to make it easy for them.  But that shouldn't apply to articles submitted to our journal, which, although peer-reviewed, is a US government publication with an extremely diverse (and international) audience.  Everything we print should be comprehensible to a nonexpert reader -- a member of the general public may not grasp the fine points of the technical details of something like whole genome sequencing, but anyone who can read at about the 12th grade level should be able to understand the main points the authors are making (e.g., improving methods to find a common source for a disease outbreak). How often we succeed in that goal is debatable, but we try.

In any case, it is supposedly my job to make it easy for our readers, hence, viruses get carried by deer mice (not Peromyscus sp.) and patients seek treatment (not "present"). It's illness and death, not moribity and mortality, and economic impact or affects, not burden.  I edited a paper not long ago where the authors kept referring to "fatal outcomes" and "nonsurvivors."  Get real. People died.  The bizarre part was the paper was a case report on a (thankfully) rare infection that is almost invariably fatal -- so why tiptoe around that fact by talking about "nonsurvivors"?

But none of that is actually what I was thinking about initially.  I stumbled across a blog that was new to me yesterday, and that got me to thinking about the differences in language between the US Forest Service and the National Park Service, like this minor thing -- why is it that employees of one agency (USFS) refer to working on a forest while employees at the other (NPS) work at parks? (The exception to that with NPS is if you're a fulltime firefighter, then you might be on an engine.) The Forest Service has other quirks, too -- they refer to the various areas within the agency as "shops," e.g., the timber shop, the fire shop. I have a few friends who are still academics in the social sciences; maybe I'll toss this at them just in case they have grad students looking for a topic for some participant-observation research.    

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I need to limit my C-SPAN viewing time.  Screaming at the television while I'm still on the first cup of coffee is not a good thing, especially when it's a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor, of all things, that inspires the screams. 

And what set me off?  Linda Feldman (the reporter in question) referring to Hawai'i being made a laughingstock because it can't satisfy the birthers' demands to see the original "long form" birth certificate of President Obama.  Hawai'i is a laughingstock for not being able to satisfy demands made by delusional lunatics?! 

The stupid, it burns.