Friday, December 28, 2012

Meanwhile, out here in the real world

I'm listening to the news this morning and once again (still, as usual) there's a lot of hot air being generated about the looming fiscal cliff and the horrible, horrible things that will happen if Federal Insurance Contributions Act (aka "payroll") taxes go back to the rates they used to be (6.2% instead of the current 4.2%). Now, I know there are some potential truly serious consequences if a budget deal isn't reached, most of which are completely unrelated to FICA, but I also know something that the inside-the-Beltway bloviating pundits and so-called experts won't acknowledge: most people either won't notice or don't care. Why won't they notice or care? I just spent a few days out in the real world out among people who do not spend their days wandering around the blogosphere. It was a good reminder that most people are not hard-core news junkies. The average person doesn't spend his or her days glued to Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN. They're not on the Internet obsessing over the latest posts on various political sites, and they're not reading multiple newspapers trying to glean the most recent bits of wisdom on current events. They may have a vague feeling Congress is busy being dysfunctional, but this isn't news. It doesn't touch them the way more immediate or local issues do, like whether or not it's going to snow enough to make it a good year for snowmobiling (tourist dollars) or if the price of gas will continue to drop.

Further, most people did not notice when their taxes dropped a couple years ago and they're unlikely to notice when they go back up again. Why? Well, although the pundits keep obsessing about what's going to happen to households earning more than $50,000 or $75,000 or some other number that allows them to say "Taxes will go up by $2000/$3000/whatever," the sad truth is that median household income in the U.S. right now is right about $50,000. That means half the households in the country have incomes low enough that any change is not going to be dramatic. Someone making minimum wage while working a part-time job might not even notice if his or her check is a dollar or two less than it might have been a couple weeks earlier, especially if the hours that person works vary from week to week -- and for a depressingly large percentage of the workforce, the hours do vary.

I can remember a few years ago when there was a lot of hype about the Bush income tax cuts. I don't recall exactly what I was earning then, but when I did the math, it turned out the tax cut worked out to the equivalent of one soda from a vending machine per week. Yep, my Bush tax cut was about $52 annually. No doubt it was nice to have a few extra coins each week, but if I hadn't been paying attention or if I worked irregular hours I might not have ever noticed. Would I have noticed if my taxes had gone up instead of down? I have no clue. Maybe, but maybe not. I noticed the Bush income tax cut because I was paying attention; the change in FICA withholding slid right past me at the time, and it involved more money.

Personally, I'm hoping FICA does go back to its old rate. Cutting it in the name of stimulating the economy was a truly stupid thing to do. FICA funds Social Security; reducing contributions to Social Security made no sense. All it did was play into the hands of the right-wing crowd that wants to eliminate old age insurance. By reducing the amount of money going into the Social Security trust fund, the right wingers positioned themselves for ratcheting up their claims Social Security is going broke. . . but that's a subject for a different post.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Good question

I knew I should have gotten an Xterra

The S.O. has posted about this, too, but what the heck, the more repetition the better. This blog doesn't get  a whole lot of traffic, but who cares? The bottom line is Ford Motor Company lies to its customers. We've been a Ford family forever, the few brand-new, fresh off the assembly line vehicles we've had have all been Fords, but never again. I had a minor issue with my Focus -- the battery died -- that according to the owner's manual should have been a no brainer. The company says they're so proud of their Motorcraft batteries they'll replace them free for 3 years from the day you get the car and will prorate a replacement for up to 100 months. It's in black and white in the manuals they hand you along with the keys.

When you read that verbiage, it seems pretty straight forward. Ford thinks their batteries are so great they'll stand behind them for a remarkably long time. Pshaw. That page is actually printed on Charmin.

Back in November when the S.O. discovered the battery had a dead cell, we figured we'd just have to plan on buying a new battery one of these days (he had a decent battery in one of his POS trucks so we stuck it in the Focus for now). Not long after that, he was looking at the recommended service schedule for the car and came across the page pictured above. So he called the Service Department at Copper Country Ford in Houghton. They told him that warranty doesn't apply to original equipment -- it's only good if you buy a replacement battery. Which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever if you think about it at all, because it's supposedly the same damn battery. Anyway, he got fed the same story when he called the Ford dealer, Fox Motors, up in Marquette.

So I called the national Ford Customer Service number. The first person I talked with started off doing the same speech as the dealers, but when I read her the verbiage and gave her the page number so they could look it up themselves, she put me on hold while she went to talk with someone higher up the food chain. When she came back, she said I was right and someone from the closest dealership (Copper County Ford) would contact me. Never happened, so I called back. Lots of apologies, a promise to expedite the case, and I'd hear from Copper Country Ford within 5 business days. Again, nothing happened. So I called back. This time it was back to the script the two dealerships had read from: "it only covers replacement batteries."

Well, it doesn't take a genius to realize there is absolutely nothing in the text pictured above to indicate it only applies to replacement batteries. It's a manual given to owners of brand new cars -- obviously, the guarantee is for original equipment.

Given that the amount of money involved at this point is fairly small -- and was in fact small to begin with (car batteries don't cost a lot in the overall scheme of things) -- Ford's complete unwillingness to honor their own written promise speaks volumes about the company. If they're going to refuse to cough up less than $100 toward a new battery, what's their reaction going to be if something major craps out on a car? If they won't honor the warranty on a battery, why should anyone believe they'd honor a warranty on a transmission or an engine?

Bottom line: if you're car shopping, stay away from Ford. I still love my Focus, but I know I'm never owning a new Ford again. And I'm really, really happy I never had to call for Ford Roadside Assistance -- I'd probably still be sitting by the side of the road somewhere waiting for help that never arrived.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A minor disappointment

A few years ago I thinned out my personal library. I'm not sure just how many books I owned, but it was a lot. I'd spent  several decades accumulating them and rarely discarded any. When the time came for the move from Omaha to Atlanta, though, the herd needed culling. I decided to get rid of any book that didn't pass the "I know I want to re-read this some day." This is a test the S.O. doesn't understand -- once he's read something, that's it. Doesn't matter how good the book was, once he's read it, he's never opening it again. I, on the other hand, enjoy going back occasionally and re-reading favorites. There are books on the shelves that are falling apart because I've worn them out through multiple readings.

Which brings me to my current reading material, A Game of Thrones. I am a huge George R. R. Martin fan. I started reading his short stories back in the '70s. Not surprisingly, I loved A Game of Thrones when I first read it back in 1996, and I've liked every other book in the series. I also like the HBO series. I've been meaning to go back and read the entire series (or what there is of it so far; Martin plans a total of seven volumes but has completed only five to date) ever since reading A Dance  with Dragons last year. Well, this week I finished everything I had checked out from the library, discovered said library is closed until December 26, so decided this would be a good time to re-read A Game of Thrones.

That's when I discovered a horrible thing has happened since 1996. Back then, once I started reading I had a hard time putting the book down. It was one of those novels where I'd start reading in early evening, get sucked into it,  and then discover the clock said 4 a.m. Now I'm having the opposite problem. The book has turned into a hard slog. Is it because seeing the series reminded me that Catelyn Stark is a stupid bitch, and I really don't care much about what happens to her or her self-centered, whining older daughter? Is it because I know Eddard Stark is going to die, and he's one of the few characters I actually like even if he is pigheadedly stupid? Who knows. The bottom line is that suddenly I'm looking at the other four volumes and wondering if hanging on to them was a mistake.

Even worse, I'm viewing the other books on the shelves, the non-Martin works, with suspicion, too. How bad was my judgement 10, 20, or 30 years ago? How disappointed am I going to be in a novel I thought was a keeper back in the '80s but turns out to be dreck now? How many books do I own that I've wasted time and energy toting around the country that could have just as easily gone to Goodwill? I'm going to try not to think about it. . .

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Do you know what this?

The logo pictured is one that I once would have assumed most people would recognize. Turns out I was wrong. We were watching the final episode of "Amazing Race" the other night, and two out the three final teams had to ask other people what it stood for. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments. I've got to admit, though, it was kind of fun to see a person wearing a University of Texas tee shirt asking a New Yorker just what the United Nations logo was. Ditto the Chippendale dancer with the good ol' boy accent -- way to go, guys, in perpetuating stereotypes about Southerners being dumber than the proverbial box of rocks.

In any case, one of the more depressing things to come out during every season of "Amazing Race" is just how appallingly ignorant the typical American is when it comes to anything that exists beyond the small bubble of their own hometowns. They find out they're going to Bangladesh and react by saying, "Great. I've always wanted to visit Africa." They're trying to find a location in Barcelona or Moscow or some other foreign city and get ticked off because no one speaks English. I would love to be able to say it's a generational thing, but the older contestants tend to be just as ignorant about geography as the 20-somethings. Ditto the cultural insensitivity and ugly American behavior traits -- seems like every season there's at least one team that's rude to the locals and then is baffled about why no one wants to help them.

Actually, I shouldn't be surprised at all that contestants on "Amazing Race" don't know much about the world. I'm willing to bet you could do a series that was a race around the United States, and there would be teams who couldn't identify any state other than their own on a map, thought Hawai'i was a foreign country,  and had never before been more than an hour's drive away from their hometowns. Despite being citizens of a country that was settled by pioneers, most Americans are not particularly adventurous nor are they very curious about anything that falls outside their comfort bubble.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Joys of rural living

We're heading down to Eagle River later today to visit the Older Daughter. We're going to do a little Christmas shopping, we're going to strategize about Christmas dinner, and I'm going to bring her an early gift: our trash.

One of the major headaches of living in a rural location is trash disposal. Back in the good ol' days, every little village and hamlet around here had its own dump, a totally unsanitary, unlined, and unsupervised landfill (usually an old gravel pit) that the locals dumped everything and anything into, from dead appliances to household garbage. Those local dumps were fun for scavengers, but an environmental hazard in the long run. Sooner or later, chemicals leaking out of that trash would find its way into local aquifers. So states started regulating dumps -- the small local ones vanished first, then the larger ones, and we're now to the point where one landfill in Ontonagon County handles trash from a multi-county area. This presents some problems for those of us who live far, far away from the landfill and have no local trash pickup.

Our personal solution, such as it is, has been to compost anything compostable, flatten metal cans and toss them into a junker that's eventually going to a scrap metal yard, wash glass bottles and eventually bring them to a recycling center, and burn anything burnable. End result is that it's taken us over a year to fill one 30-gallon trash bag with trash that doesn't fit into any of the above categories, stuff like burnt out lightbulbs and a dead coffeemaker. So today we're taking that one 30-gallon bag down to Eagle River, and it'll end up on the curb there. Alternatively, we could drive into town here and put it on the Arvon Transit & Disposal truck, but  I can never remember which days and times the garbage truck is at its designated pickup points.

I have been thinking about trash a lot lately, especially after seeing an article in the L'Anse Sentinel about a Michigan law that recently went into effect: it is now illegal to incinerate any trash other than paper outdoors . Apparently outdoor burn barrels are a significant source of toxins and carcinogens in the air -- translation: burning plastic milk jugs and styrofoam meat trays is now illegal. It hit me while reading the article that if we were to strictly observe the law, our less than 1 trash bag per year going to a landfill would climb to multiple bags per month. It also hit me that those of us who live in remote locations are going to find a loophole pretty damn fast -- and of course there is one. It is now illegal to use something like this:
Something like this is, however, totally legal:
The loophole is that while it is illegal to burn trash in what is effectively an open fire, if the smoke goes up a chimney or stack, you're fine. I cheerfully predict two things will happen if/when people start being cited for illegal trash burning: sales of barrel stove conversion kits are going to climb, and variations on a simpler mod (slapping a length or two of stovepipe on a barrel lid) will pop up pretty fast.

It occurs to me, too, that, compared to Texas, rural Michigan is pretty darn civilized when it comes to burning trash. We at least put it in barrels instead of just raking it into the roadside ditches and burning it there. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book review: Under a Flaming Sky

 Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 surprised me. I did not expect it to be a book that would cause me to read it cover to cover in one sitting. I was, after all, familiar with the outlines of the Hinckley story: the humongous wildfire, a firestorm, swooping down on the town, people fleeing for their lives with the fire literally at their heels, the hundreds of fatalities among those who found themselves with nowhere to run. I've been to the cemetery in Hinckley. I've seen the monument and the mass graves where most of the 496 known victims are buried. If anything, I thought I'd be reading the book slowly, forced to pause for a break from one horrific incident after another. Daniel James Brown, however, built the pauses into the book. Just as you think you're not up to reading about another victim suffocating in a root cellar or being burned alive while running for the river, Brown breaks away with an extended sidebar about forestry, logging history, burn treatment then and now, and other topics.

The emotional breathing spaces are in their own way rather horrifying, too. Each one is an explication of some aspect of the Hinckley disaster: definitions of wildfires and notable examples occurring before or after the Hinckley fire, an explanation of exactly how fire kills a person, burn treatment in 1894 and why most burn victims died, and so on. His descriptions, for example, of fire behavior now has me looking at the trees in our yard and the brushed-in  pastures and wondering just how many yards back I want to clearcut everything. A 40-acre lawn is looking good at the moment. Then again, if there ever was a fire of the type Brown describes, it might take more acres than we've got to create a safe zone. Maybe my disaster preparedness should include thinking of ways to get out of here fast if the one and only road is impassable.

The book is a straight forward narrative. The author explains his interest in Hinckley in the prologue: his grandfather had survived the fire. Later in the book, when Brown reveals his grandfather's name in the epilogue, we realize he did so by getting on to the one northbound train that managed to outrun the fire's progress. Brown begins the book proper with a description of conditions in the upper Lake States that summer -- unusually hot and dry weather that had persisted for many weeks, the fuel load in the woods (mountains of tinder dry slash from white pine logging) -- coupled with a rather casual attitude toward the possibility of fire. Small fires were so common that there had been haze in the air for many weeks; almost none of those fires near Hinckley had flared into anything so large it had been uncontrollable. A fire had burned Phillips, Wisconsin, to the ground in July, but apparently hadn't been seen as a warning sign elsewhere in the northwoods. Various residents of the Hinckley area are then  introduced: doctors, businessmen, housewives, children, farmers, millworkers, and railroad workers. As the timeline progresses, the fire inches closer to hitting Hinckley. Who lives, who dies is revealed as the narrative unfolds.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book was the discussion of why people often respond irrationally in a disaster. One of the two trains* to make it out of Hinckley stopped at stations along the way to take on water for the boiler and to telegraph the railroad dispatcher in Duluth the news that Hinckley was destroyed and the railroad was now cut off from St. Paul. At each stop, the train crew and passengers, who truly looked like they'd just crawled straight out of Hell, urged the local people to evacuate immediately. Sandstone, Minnesota, for example, was only 11 miles from Hinckley. The people there could see and smell the smoke (it was already so thick the train crew wasn't sure the high trestle over the river was still there), there were embers falling, but when the train crew said, in essence, RUN!, almost no one did. The train was barely out of sight when the fire hit Sandstone and leveled the town. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that when it is most important that people think outside the box, they can't. People cope with fear by sticking to a familiar script.

The Hinckley fire and its aftermath, incidentally, is remarkably well-documented. A horde of journalists descended on the community right along with the relief workers, taking photographs and interrogating traumatized survivors. Newspapers as far away as London, England, published reports within 48 hours, and books with extensive first hand accounts appeared within a few months. In addition, a number of the survivors wrote memoirs and the local historical society collected oral histories. The Minnesota State Historical Society houses a number of collections, e.g., questionnaires completed by relief workers when they interviewed survivors, so there is a wealth of archival material.

As for the usual question -- would I recommend this book to other readers? -- the answer is Yes. It's well-written, fast-paced, and extremely interesting. Beyond that endorsement, I'll add that anyone who lives in an area where there is an urban-wildland interface should read this book and then start re-writing their internalized scripts. When someone says there's a wildfire heading your way, don't hang around telling yourself bad stuff only happens to other people or waiting to see if the firefighters are going to get it stopped before it gets to your subdivision. Just pack and leave.

[*One train was able to get through to Duluth; the second one was cut off not far out of town but made it to a small, muddy lake -- Skunk Lake -- and passengers and crew were able to survive by immersing themselves in the muck and water.]

Monday, December 3, 2012


When we moved from Atlanta last year, we knew we couldn't just park the U-Haul in the front yard and unload it directly into the house here. This cabin was already fully furnished, right down to sheets on the bed. We'd have to integrate the Georgia stuff slowly while sorting through dishes, linens, you name it, and deciding what to keep and what to jettison. We rented a storage unit in town in October 2011, backed the U-Haul up to the door, and shoved everything off the truck into it. The process took a little longer than anticipated (doesn't everything?) but this past week we were finally put the last of the boxes into the car. No more storage unit.

The only problem, of course, is this place hasn't gotten any bigger in the past year. We also haven't really thinned things out much. Oh, a few boxes of dishes and miscellaneous household goods have gone to the St. Vincent de Paul store, but mostly what we've done is rearrange things. Organized them. Stacked the cartons neater so they fit into a more compact space. Nonetheless, we're still stuck with four or five U-Haul  Small Boxes stacked in the front hall while we try to figure out what to do with the contents. Two are labeled "dishes from china cabinet." I no longer have a china cabinet -- that was one of the items we did jettison in Atlanta.

I do, however, still have all the clutter and weirdness that used to live in it: the souvenir Coke can I picked up in DC one of the years the Redskins won the Super Bowl, my complete set of never-used Lord of the Rings goblets from Burger King, two Nestle Quik rabbit mugs, several hurricane-type drinks glasses from Macados in Blacksburg, a Copper Country dairy quart milk bottle, and a lot more stuff I sort of hate to acknowledge owning. You know, weirdness. This stuff doesn't fall into the category of "fine collectibles," nor does anything of it coalesce into a recognizable coherent collection of any sort.

You can justify having almost any amount of stuff if it's a "collection" -- there are a lot of people out there who will dedicate multiple rooms of a house to a "collection." Beer cans, Hummel figurines, Christmas pixies, you name it, if you own more than a handful, you can call it a collection. If I had a gazillion pieces of Nestle Quik advertising junk, it would be a collection. My Little Debbie dolls are a collection. Two mugs, on the other hand, are just weird. Ditto the lonely Redskins Coke can, especially when I loath the Redskins. And when you get a lot of little weird pieces, none of which relate to each other much, you start sliding into what can only be termed hoarding territory. So why am I keeping it all? Good question. At least the rabbit mugs are cute. Now all I have to do is figure out where to put them.