Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interesting visual history

If you go to the original website, you can see it full size there. Enlarging doesn't seem to be working here. It's worth taking a close look at.


The election draws closer, Hurricane Sandy is all over the news, and I'm wondering just how long it will take for the tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists to decide that President Obama and NOAA deliberately caused the Frankenstorm just to make the President look good right before the election. It would be totally in character for the wingnuts; they alternate between asserting that President Obama is an incompetent loser who hasn't achieved a single thing during his time in office and ascribing almost superhuman powers to him. I've always wondered how people can manage to function without their heads exploding when they spout two completely contradictory ideas simultaneously, but they do it. It's also pretty much guaranteed the same Tea Party fanatics who were working themselves into a frenzy over Obamacare and too much big government will be first in line looking for government help when the storm blows itself out.

On the local level, as the election approaches we're being buried under an avalanche of paper advertising. At least two print shops are doing very, very well this year. The Republicans are determined to convince us to vote for three specific candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court, and the Democrats are determined to convince us that Matt Huuki (our current state representative) is more interested in raping the environment and lining his own pockets than he is in the legitimate concerns of his constituents. I keep expecting the next flyer to denounce Matt as the Anti-Christ -- the graphics and text are growing more dramatic with each mailing. He does seem to be much too cozy with Rio Tinto for my taste, though, and was one of the legislators who basically handed the Upper Peninsula to the mining companies and said, in essence, "Rape away and don't worry about cleaning up the toxic mess you leave." He may not be the Anti-Christ, but he's definitely a corporate tool. He does a lot of cheerleading for mining interests, but doesn't seem to get it that extractive industries are never the route to long-term economic stability. It doesn't matter what the mineral is; there's going to be a finite amount of it. Sooner or later, every mine closes, the mining company moves out, and the local people are left with the sediment ponds, tailings dumps, and beaches black with stamp sand.

In any case, I really wish Michigan allowed early voting. I know there's going to be a line at the polls next week; I am looking back nostalgically at Georgia. There were lines there, too, even with early voting, but it definitely eliminated some of the congestion on election day itself. I know some politicians dislike the idea of early voting (it eliminates the effectiveness of last minute electioneering), but it's a boon to the voters.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sequoyah's Cabin

Sequoyah apparently searching the sky for inspiration while working on his syllabary.
After the S.O. and I decided we'd take the long way home through Oklahoma, I checked to see what points of interest might fall close to US-259/US-59. There were several possibilities, but the two that struck me as most intriguing were Spiro Mounds and Sequoyah's Cabin, both of which are state historic parks. Given a choice between the two, I opted for the latter. I've seen lots and lots of piles of dirt, and, yes, it's interesting that various mound building cultures built mounds, and, yes, the artifacts looted from those mounds and now displayed in on-site museums are interesting, too, but it's always rather impersonal and vague. Sequoyah, on the other hand, was an actual person, someone with a known history and compelling narrative.
Structure built by the WPA in the 1930s to protect Sequoyah's cabin
Sequoyah, who was also known as George Gist or George Guess, was born sometime between 1770 and 1776 in eastern Tennessee near what is now the city of Knoxville. Much of his early life is unknown; his mother was Cherokee, and, depending on the source, his father was either a British fur trader, a Scotsman, or the half-Indian son of a fur trader or Scotsman. Similarly, the source of Sequoyah's disability is unclear. He was lame in one leg, but whether this was the result of a birth defect or an early childhood injury is not known. The lameness is, however, probably the reason for the unnatural position Sequoyah has assumed in the sculpture shown above: it's the artist's attempt at indicating one leg was weaker than the other.

Sequoyah's cabin
When I was in elementary school, I read a book about Great Indian Leaders. It was, in retrospect, a thoroughly sanitized version of their lives, but I do remember being fascinated by Sequoyah. He was, of course, presented in heroic terms first for overcoming his handicap (the bad leg) to become a skilled silversmith and then for his invention of an "alphabet" for the Cherokee. I'm not sure just how much of a handicap the bad leg actually was -- Sequoyah was a veteran of the War of 1812; he served as a warrior in the Cherokee Regiment at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend -- but creation of the Cherokee syllabary was indeed a remarkable invention.
Interior, Sequoyah's cabin. The spinning wheel supposedly was made by Sequoyah.
A syllabary is a system of writing that uses a unique symbol for each sound in a language. Once you learn the symbols, you can sound out any document written in Cherokee phonetically and, if you speak Cherokee, know immediately what it means. This puts the Cherokee "alphabet" into a different category than the Roman alphabet we use for English writing. English has numerous combinations of letters in words that can look similar but sound differently -- tough, though, and through spring immediately to mind. Theoretically, that can't happen in Cherokee. Not having any first-hand knowledge of it myself, I don't know what type of possibilities for confusion lurk in Sequoyah's syllabary, but it would appear to be a much easier written language to learn than English is.
Typewriter with Cherokee keys donated to the State Historical Society. 
Sequoyah's invention of the syllabary was greeted with skepticism initially, but once he convinced a few influential leaders that it worked and that anyone could learn it, it spread quickly. In 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper, began publishing using the syllabary, and the syllabary remains in wide use today. The existence of a written language has been credited as helping to maintain the ethnic and cultural cohesion of the Cherokee nation.
Sequoyah's Cabin state historic park was, not surprisingly, a WPA project. After Sequoyah died around 1844 (the exact date is not known), his farm was sold to a family named Blair. Sequoyah had built the cabin shortly after moving to Oklahoma; the Blairs added on to the original cabin after they bought the farm. In 1936 the Blair family transferred the property to the State of Oklahoma. To protect the cabin, the State Historical Society used WPA funding to construct a building around it. The cabin is on its original site, but is now completely enclosed by another building. This is a preservation approach I have real mixed feelings about -- it's saving the structure by putting it in a bubble, but it's significantly altering the context.
Visitor Center, Sequoyah's Cabin 
The addition built by the Blairs was removed and rehabilitated for use as the Visitor Center at the park. Considering its remarkably good condition after being subject to the elements for over 70 years, I have even more mixed feelings about the stone bubble around Sequoyah's Cabin.
In addition to the stone bubble, the WPA workers built some nice stone walkways, a wall enclosing the park, and some other structures. Overall, it's a nice little park, beautifully maintained, and with a pleasant picnic area (something you don't always see at historic sites). Going by the number of signatures in the Guest Book, the site doesn't get many visitors, which is a shame. It's an interesting place and does a nice job of describing Sequoyah's life and the importance of his syllabary.
Stump carved into a bear in the picnic area.
Admission to the park is free, but there is the usual donation box. Given the sad state of park budgets everywhere these days (the Oklahoma state parks website warns visitors to call ahead to make sure a park is actually open because limited funds can mean hours of operation can get cut back unexpectedly), if you do go, be generous. Sequoyah's Cabin is located about 10 miles northeast of the city of Sallisaw on state highway 101.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Obesity Epidemic Explained

Okay, maybe not. It's probably a totally spurious correlation, but after doing some refrigerator shopping, I couldn't help but wonder: is there a connection between the U.S. population going from using this:
to using this:
26.5 cubic feet capacity refrigerator
The number of people in a household has been dwindling, with the typical family having fewer kids in recent decades than they did 50 or 60 years ago, yet the capacity of the refrigerators in our kitchens keeps growing. Why on earth would any household require a 26.5 cubic feet capacity refrigerator? Even when we had kids at home, I think the biggest refrigerator the S.O. and I ever owned was one with 14 cubic feet capacity. What do people fill those humongous refrigerators with? It has to be convenience food (aka junk) because it doesn't matter how big the fridge, fresh food (i.e., salad greens, meat) has a limited shelf life, and even yogurt goes bad eventually. What else can a person fill those multiple door shelves with other than soda or beer? No one has that many bottles of condiments. 

It is, however, remarkably difficult to find a refrigerator that actually matches up with your real world needs. Anyone who's ever seen "Househunters International" knows that quite a bit of the rest of the world manages just fine without the mega-appliances Americans insist on buying: under-the-counter refrigerators not much bigger than a typical dorm fridge here are the norm in European countries. But try finding a smaller refrigerator if you've decided that's what you need -- it's not easy. 

The S.O. and I found ourselves refrigerator-shopping right after getting home from a 3-week vacation the other day. We walked in the door Friday evening and discovered a puddle of Breyer's in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. The appliance had mysteriously chosen to die right about the same time we left Texas. We could tell it hadn't been dead long because the ice cubes were still basically ice cubes, but it was definitely dead. It made noises like it was working, but the temperature in it kept rising. I've had better homecomings.

We were limited in just what size replacement appliance we could buy; the old refrigerator (a 10.3 cubic foot Haier) lived under the stairs in a space that was basically built around it. This is a small house with a galley kitchen; there simply isn't the square footage for one of those mega-Frigidaires. Whatever we got had to be less than 24 inches wide; that considerably narrowed our choices when it came to what was available immediately.

We did toy with the idea of going even smaller than the 10.3 Haier and getting a 4.6 cubic foot refrigerator that would have been small enough that we could have put a base cabinet under it. I was briefly psyched by the prospect of adding more storage in the kitchen. In the end, though, it was the door shelves that decided the matter. The 4.6 models were all set up with a can rack in the door where you could stack your cans of Coke or cheap beer, and we had no use whatsoever for such a "convenience." We found a 12-cubic foot Whirlpool and hauled it home. I can tell already it's more refrigerator than we actually need, but it fits in the space and the price was right. 

According to the various pieces of information I could find on Whirlpool, it's possible this new refrigerator was actually made in the USA. The S.O. did a fair amount of cursing while trying to reverse the doors because the screws/bolts/whatever were actually American Standard instead of metric. He's gotten so used to everything being made in China or wherever that he automatically reaches for metric parts and tools whenever he has to work on anything these days. 

I keep thinking about the Kelvinator we jettisoned earlier this summer. It no longer worked particularly well, but it did still work -- and it was 70 years old. There's a Frigidaire at the museum over in Baraga that dates to the 1920s, and it still works. The made-in-China Haier died after less than 10 years; I wonder how long this Whirlpool will last? 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Random road thoughts

It's going to be hard to get used to driving 55 again after spending a few weeks in Texas. The State of Texas posts roads at 70 mph that would be 55 at best here in Michigan and that would, in addition, have caution signs on every curve warning you not to exceed 35.

There are some things Texas seems to do really well, and other things are just plain odd. Example of a good idea in Texas: if it's a state maintained road, the Texas Department of Transportation is in charge of providing a mail box post. You bring your U.S. Postal System-approved mailbox to the local DOT and they do the installation. It means all the mailboxes on the busier roads are on posts that won't turn into air-borne weapons if someone goes off the road and hits one, and it also means all the mailbox posts have highly visible reflectors on them. Much as I'm a fan of roadside eccentricity (mailboxes mounted on welded chain, old metal wheels, chunks of twisted wood, etc.), I've got to admit the Texas DOT had a good idea. Not only the mailboxes safer, there are no visual distractions.

As for the just plain odd, why are the breaker boxes for the power mounted on the outside of so many houses in Texas? Why put it right under the meter where the service enters the house? Isn't it going to be a real pain in the behind to have to go looking for a tripped breaker in the middle of the night or in the rain? Whatever happened to the concept of putting the service panel in a utility room or in a closet wall? Or this all just part of the personal freedom Texans enjoy from little constraints like building codes and licensing requirements for electricians and other contractors?

Not content to skin tourists at the casino, the Choctaw of Oklahoma are determined to get them at the gas pumps, too. Gasoline prices were relatively low and dropping all the way from Fairmount, Texas, up into Oklahoma. And then we hit Broken Bow and the Choctaw Nation. The highest prices we saw in that state were all within a few miles of the Choctaw casino. Came as a bit of a shock. Here in the U.P., the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community is universally hated by all the private gas station owners and distributors because KBIC always has the lowest prices. If gas is $3.89 in L'Anse, it'll be at least 20 cents lower at the KBIC-owned station over in Baraga.

On the other hand, the drive up US-259 to US-59 to Sallisaw was quite scenic. Not sure if the Ouachita Mountains really make up for getting gouged at the pump, but it was a pretty drive.

Oklahomans really, really hate Texas. Evidence?

Speaking of politics, Claire McCaskill has some great ads running in Missouri. Here's hoping they help her. Other than McCaskill's ads, though, the political advertising in Missouri was bizarre -- there were ads being paid for by Republicans that tried to make it sound like Democrats are planning to do (or have done) all the things the Republicans actually want to do (privatize Social Security, for example) and ads being run by Democrats that you'd swear were written by Karl Rove. The typical voter in that state has to be thoroughly confused; the advertising in general was both dirty and misleading.

The amount of political advertising we saw while watching network television in motel rooms en route made me quite happy to be heading back to television via the Internet only -- it's not as convenient as being able to just turn on a tv and click around with the remote, but it does eliminate most advertising.

And now we're home, back at the ranch and getting ready to deal with whatever weirdness may have occurred during our 3-week absence. One more cup of coffee and I may have the energy to go looking for problems.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ennui, apathy, or lack of inspiration?

The Younger Daughter mentioned last night that I didn't seem to do much blogging lately. No kidding. I'm not sure why. I have moments when I think "That would make a good blog post," but by the time I get to the computer, the idea has passed. Maybe it's retirement -- back when I worked for Large Nameless Agency (aka the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), LNA provided examples of bureaucratic ineptitude for me to rant about on practically a daily basis. Ditto some of my idiot co-workers. Now I'm retired -- what can I bitch about? The S.O.? I don't think so. He has his annoying moments, but don't we all? The economy? Yes, it's still a mess, but that's old news. Politics? Ditto. I've been bitching about tinfoil hat Republican insanity for four years now; I think my well of outrage is running dry. Either that, or I need to start watching C-SPAN again. C-SPAN callers used to provide a fair amount of inspiration, but I seem to have kicked my C-SPAN addiction. Besides, there are a whole lot of other blogs, including ones I've got listed among my favorite time wasters, that do political analysis much, much better than I do. So what's left? Book reviews? Food porn? Maybe I need to get back to some of the stuff I thought I was going to do when I started this blog: roadside weirdness, national parks, and historic preservation.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Can't cure stupid

Lately the S.O. has been indulging in an exercise in frustration in trying to communicate with some right-wing relatives. He spends way too much time exchanging comments on Facebook while muttering about how fucking stupid some people are. This behavior tells me it's definitely time for us to hit the road back to Michigan -- he needs to be using that energy to finish filling the woodshed before the snow gets to be asshole deep instead of wasting it in cyberspace. He could type until his fingers bled and it wouldn't change anyone's mind. The relatives in question are the classic example of what I (elitist left-wing Commie that I am) tend to think of as the brainwashed proletariat -- they fret a lot about creeping socialism and President Obama being a Marxist without having a clue as to what socialism or Marxism actually are.* They just know that they've been told that socialism is evil so it's become a convenient label to slap on to anything and everything they've been told to oppose.

I don't know why the S.O. bothers. I figured out quite awhile ago that there are some people who like to talk but are incapable of listening, so it's pointless to try to engage in a dialogue. It's especially pointless when you're dealing with people who have trouble understanding some fairly basic concepts, like the difference between socialism and fascism, or who rant about the evils of big government while working for a corporation that depends 100% on government funding. When people are so oblivious or willfully ignorant that they don't get it that shrinking government would result in their own unemployment or eliminate their benefits arguing with them is a waste of time and energy. All you can do is walk away while being quietly grateful that the people in question are fairly distant relatives, not close ones, and that they don't live next door.

[*As an actual Marxist who has known genuine, ideologically committed Socialists and Communists, it always annoys the crap out of me to see the labels applied to corporatist politicians like Barack Obama who 50 years ago would have been Eisenhower Republicans.]

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hodges Gardens State Park, Florien, Louisiana

Visitor Center and Gift Shop, Hodges Gardens
 Hodges Gardens State Park is a fairly new addition to the Louisiana parks system and is located in western Louisiana about an hour's drive from Natchitoches. The gardens were created in the 1950s by a businessman, A. J. Hodges, who  made his fortune in the oil and gas industry. Mr. Hodges hired Hare and Hare, a landscape architecture firm noted for designing municipal parks in the Midwest, to turn a site that included an abandoned quarry into a garden that took advantage of the irregular terrain. The property was part of a large tract of land Hodges had purchased in the 1930s. At the time, the tract was in sad shape following years of unsustainable logging. Hodges applied principles of modern forestry to restore the pine forests and then, after World War II, turned his attention to the gardens site. The gardens opened to the public in 1956, but were in private ownership until 2007 when the Hodges Foundation transferred the park to the state of Louisiana.
Observation tower, which isn't really a tower. but an overlook perched on top of a hill. 
The gardens  have a distinct mid-century modern feel. The Visitor Center and the observation tower (designed by the architectural firm of Walker and Walker, Shreveport, Louisiana, along with other structures such as a lakeside stage) are typical of the era, as is the rock work throughout the park. Materials used for walkways, bridge piers, retaining walls, and stairways are natural but not rusticated. The gardens are showing their age and the effects of what is no doubt a tight budget. Deferred maintenance was obvious in a few places, some water features were shut down, and there were locations were water was seeping over a sidewalk or down a stairway.

This staircase is an example of deferred maintenance. It's a double staircase with a water feature between the two sets of steps. The cascade was dry, but one stairway was blocked off and water was trickling down the steps, making it clear there was a plumbing problem somewhere. 

Nonetheless, the gardens with their numerous water features are lovely. The water for the numerous cascades is pumped from the lake, cycles through the gardens, and is used for irrigation as necessary.There is water running everywhere, over artificial waterfalls both big and small and through and through ornamental ponds close to the lake.

The gardens occupy about 700 acres of land; the park as a whole is about 4,700 acres. Today, the park includes a 225-acre lake, formal gardens, natural gardens, hiking trails, tent camping, and rental cabins. There is no area for RVs, and hopefully there never will be. There are numerous RV parks and national forest campgrounds close by that are open to RVs; Hodges Gardens remaining RV-free isn't going to inconvenience anyone.

The camping area and cabins are located on the opposite side of the lake from the gardens so campers would not be disturbed by tourist traffic to the gardens during the busier seasons of the year or for special events (this past weekend, for example, the park was showing the movie "The Lorax" on a lakeside stage). The trail system seems extensive (at least on the map) with varied terrain (the area is hilly) so people who like to hike or mountain bike would probably enjoy the park, the lake is open for fishing, and the park rents kayaks and canoes.

Monday, October 1, 2012


A distinct lack of enthusiasm

Could this be the year when they hold an election and no one bothers to vote? I'm sensing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for both major parties. We just completed a 1400-mile drive from Upper Michigan to southeast Texas. I think I could count the number of bumper stickers I saw supporting Romney on the fingers on one hand and have a few fingers left over. Not that Obama fared much better -- there were more Obama stickers, but most of them looked like they'd been on the vehicles since 2008 -- they weren't this year's graphics.

The same was true of yard signs -- they were close to nonexistent, and the ones we did see tended to be almost 100% concerned with local or state elections. In fact, the highest number of yard signs we saw were fairly close to here -- coming down Texas Highway 96, we saw a lot of signs for two candidates apparently competing for the position of district judge. Nothing for any other office seeker, though, on either a state of national level, and it was like that for most of the drive.

Missouri probably had the most signage out -- and it was unintentionally amusing. There'd be a whole clump of signs for Republican candidates for various state offices, like Peter Kinder (currently lieutenant governor and hoping to get re-elected), and then a few miles down the Interstate, well removed from all the other Republicans, there'd be a lonely sign for Todd Akin, the Republican running for U.S. Senate. Akin is, of course, the guy who made the mistake of saying what he was actually thinking by claiming that if it's a legitimate rape a woman won't get pregnant. It's a medieval belief that's apparently fairly common among some persons whose intellectual development stopped in about the 12th century, but it's also something most  Republicans are smart enough to avoid saying publicly. Since Akin opened his mouth, other Republicans have been treating him like he has leprosy -- and that apparently holds true even for their yard signs. Kinder et al. don't seem to want to remind voters they're part of the same party as Akin.