Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Say Whoa to the meatballs?

Years ago, way back when we lived in Panorama City, right in the heart of the San Fernando valley, a scandal broke concerning a fast food chain that forever after we've referred to as "Jack in the Pouch." It turned out the hamburgers Jack was peddling were made from kangaroo meat. Not surprisingly, most Americans were thoroughly freaked out by the idea of eating Kanga and 'Roo; as a rule, we don't consider Disney* characters to be edible. The biggest scandal, of course, was that they'd snuck the kangaroo meat in for economic reasons. Ground kangaroo cost less pound per pound than ground beef.

Apparently the same thing is true of horse meat in Europe. Ground horse is cheaper than ground cow, so some meat processors have been stretching the bovine with equine. In a weird twist, it turns out horse meat is healthier for human consumption because it's leaner and less loaded with cholesterol and other bad stuff than beef. Nonetheless, when horse meat was found in ground meat sold by Tesco (a major supermarket chain in Great Britain), consumers were outraged. I can understand the dismay. People like to know just what it is they're grilling; adulteration is a bad thing, regardless of whether the product is being stretched with sea weed, textured soy protein, sawdust, or dead race horses.

Since the original scandal broke, I personally was rather taken aback to learn that one of my favorite food products, the Swedish meatballs served at IKEA (and sold frozen in the Swedish Food Market section of the stores), had been found to contain horse meat. Can I ever look at the 15-meatball plate again and not wonder just what the gravy is hiding? Is it possible to see whip marks from the jockey on a meatball? Can the lingonberry sauce compensate for a nagging sense that I'm chowing down on My Little Pony? How long will it take before someone discovers horse DNA in ground meat being sold as beef in this country?

From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, I don't see why some people are upset by the idea of eating horse meat. Dead animal flesh is dead animal flesh; livestock is livestock. It shouldn't make a difference that horses are more aesthetically pleasing to look at than cattle or that books like Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka were written about horses instead of cows. If it's okay to barbecue beef, than it should be okay to barbecue horses. I personally don't know if I'd ever eat horse meat**, but as long as it was clearly labeled as such, I'd have no problem seeing it sitting in the meat case at the local IGA. Who knows? Maybe if the price of beef and the price of hay both keep climbing, we will be seeing USDA-inspected Dobbin in butchers' cases in the not too distant future.

[*or A. E. Milne icons, if you're a purist.]

[**I didn't think I would be able to eat reindeer meat either but once it was on the plate in front of me Rudolph tasted just fine.]  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Customer service (or the lack thereof)

Spent a couple hours last night in a planning meeting for some events scheduled locally for mid-June. As tends to happen in meetings, the group as a whole went wandering off on a number of tangents. One was Customer Service. The events being planned are meant to present a positive enough image of the local area that any tourists who are first-time visitors to the county will decide it's worth coming back here. Someone mentioned the MSU Extension Service does have a specialist who will present workshops on improving customer service. Perhaps it would be a good idea to have such a workshop for the local businesses so they could brush up on their customer relationship skills and figure out how to do things better?

Only one problem, as it turns out. The Chamber of Commerce and the local Tourism Association have tried to hold customer service workshops in the past. In fact, they had scheduled one for the previous month. Guess how many people signed up for it? Zip, zero, zilch. People might bitch about how badly their small businesses are doing, customer traffic is down, they're not getting repeat sales, etc., but somehow they never quite make the connection that the problem might be staring at them from the mirror. The people who need the training in customer service the most are the ones least likely to get it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Another head*desk day at the museum

I spent a few hours at the local county historical museum yesterday. After I rejoined the county historical society last year, I looked around to see where my skill set would be most useful to the museum. It didn't take me long to figure out that the archives were a mess. Over the years, the historical society has been remarkably successful in obtaining donations of artifacts and documents. The holdings include records from local businesses and fraternal orders, family histories, scrapbooks, and various historic documents. There is a wealth of material. There was one thing that society had apparently never possessed, however, and that was someone who knew how to file.

The first time I looked in a filing cabinet, my immediate reaction was to mutter, "Holy shit," and then close the drawer quickly. There were multiple 4-drawer filing cabinets, and each one was a mess. Unlabeled file folders, folders that were labeled but had contents that didn't match up at all with what the label said, multiple file folders with the same name. Naturally, nothing had ever been cataloged or accessioned; finding aids were nonexistent. This wasn't a surprise; most people don't join historical societies because they love to file. They join because they're interested in some aspect of local history and enjoy talking about it with fellow enthusiasts. When I asked the other volunteers how they ever found anything, the answer was "Jim knows where everything is." They apparently believed Jim was going to live forever, which, of course, no one does.

So I asked Jim [the historical society president] if it was okay with him if I took a stab at creating finding aids and getting the archives into some sort of order. His response was an enthusiastic yes. That was back in June. Since then I put in a few hours a day one or two days a week at the museum slowly going through the vertical files.

I never trained as an archivist so I do have moments when I wonder if I'm doing it right -- I'm definitely doing some stuff wrong because the historical society has never had the budget to purchase the right supplies (buffered acid-free file folders, for example) -- but I do know the alphabet (more or less). I've also heard that you're supposed to create finding aids after you're done cataloging, but I'm doing it more or less simultaneously. The nice thing about everything being computerized is that it'll be easy to either clump or split subject headings as the collections sort themselves out. As long as the catalog/finding aid is a Word file, it'll be easy enough to find almost anything by using the Find function.

One sure thing is that every time I go in, there will be at least one head*desk moment, sometimes several. It isn't just that stuff is misfiled or badly labeled. There's also the frustration of finding truly nifty things that have been literally vandalized by well-meaning people who didn't know better -- e.g., historic photos that have information written on the front with a ballpoint pen -- or interesting newspaper clippings that have no identifying information (what newspaper printed the article and when?) or are incomplete. I've found a lot of second pages of articles with no first page to accompany them and vice versa. You know, a clipping with no context or incomplete content isn't particularly useful to anyone, either an ordinary person looking for genealogical information or a scholar doing academic research.

My head*desk moment yesterday came when I found several No. 10 envelopes tucked to one side in a file drawer. Each one was just bulging with newspaper clippings; none of the clippings included the name of the paper and almost none had the date of publication. It is, incidentally, positively amazing just how many newspaper clippings it's possible to cram into one business-sized envelope.

One envelope was labeled "local businesses" and turned out to be full of box ads for various businesses in Baraga County. There was, of course, no information given on which newspaper or papers the ads had been clipped from. A few of the ads did have dates written on them, so it's possible to know that during 1948  a local hardware store was having a 3-box cars sale on new refrigerators. (Not just one box car load of refrigerators, mind you, but three! They must have been counting on a lot of demand for new appliances.) Unfortunately, the dates were written in ink right on the ads -- not above or below it or on the back of the clippings, but right in the ad. Which means, of course, that not only is that ink going to make the paper rot faster, it makes the ads harder to work with for curatorial purposes. As soon as I saw the ads, I thought they'd be cool to work with to create a photo montage for a background in an exhibit case highlighting local businesses, but all those handwritten dates would be a bitch to photoshop out.

Then I opened the envelope labeled "deaths," looked at the mess, realized it included not just obituaries but also marriages (which really makes one wonder about the label on the envelope), and decided it was time to quit for the day. Even my CDO has its limits.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Comparing headlines

A quick look at the morning news on various websites the day after the President's State of the Union address:

Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionObama: Nation stronger, GOP should back his plans

Washington Post: A Call for Jobs, Opportunity

New York Times: Obama Pledges Push to Lift Economy for Middle Class

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Obama Lays Out Ambitious Agenda

Marquette Mining Journal: Ice fishing classes offered during free fishing weekend

Never let it be said that Yoopers don't have their priorities straight.  

Friday, February 8, 2013

A new research project

No, it's not the rhubarb pie. It, or more accurately she, is the person who provided the pie recipe: Ingrid Bartelli, an  MSU Extension Consumer Information Marketing Agent and, if I recall correctly, my mother's Home Ec teacher many, many years ago at L'Anse High School. I became intrigued by Mrs. Bartelli when I began doing some background research for an exhibit the local historical society plans to set up at the Baraga County Historical Museum this coming summer: Finns and Finnish Americans in Baraga County. I had a vague memory that Mrs. Bartelli was born a Mattson, which suggests a Finnish background; I also vaguely remembered that she hosted a cooking show on With-Luck-You-See TV in Marquette. It seemed like she'd be a good candidate to include in the exhibit as a notable successful Finnish-American.

Well, despite the wonders of the Internet, it turns out that quite a bit of Mrs. Bartelli's life is still a blank. I know when she was born (April 12, 1912) and when she died (December 29, 2002) but not much about what happened in between those dates. I've found sources for her obituary, but not a copy of the obit itself -- I'm going to have to do old-fashioned library research for that. Turns out there are quite a few newspapers that have not gotten around to digitizing their older records. I've found references to the program she hosted on WLUC TV6 -- "Cooking with Ingrid" -- but no solid information on the show itself, e.g., when did it begin airing and how long did it run? I've learned she was the author of a guide to edible mushrooms that's still being used. It must have been a really good guide because in 1983 the North American Mycological Association presented her with an award for her extraordinary contributions to amateur mycology.

So what am I missing? At this point, just about everything. Until I actually read the obit, I don't have much to go on for her personal life in either direction -- no info on ancestors, nothing on descendants. What did she look like? Are there any photos available? How did she go from teaching school in L'Anse to working for MSU Extension? How many of her former students are still around (other than my 90-year-old mother) and would any of them be willing to be interviewed about her? Ditto children and grandchildren? And just how much time am I willing to invest in researching one small part of what is planned as a much larger exhibit?

No answers yet, but here's the rhubarb pie recipe taken straight from one of Mrs. Bartelli's newsletters for consumers:

My Favorite Rhubarb Pie
Line pie pan with unbaked pie crust
Fill generously with rhubarb which has been cut into 1/2 inch pieces

For a 9 inch pie, mix together:
1 heaping cup of sugar
3 eggs
dash of salt

For 8 inch pie, mix together:
1 scant cup of sugar
2 eggs
dash of salt

Pour egg and sugar mixture over rhubarb, spreading evenly over top.
Cover with strips of pie crust woven in a lattice top.
Bake in hot oven 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees for additional 30 minutes, or until rhubarb is completely cooked. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

So how's that bunker fantasy working out?

As that standoff in Alabama was unfolding, I found myself wondering just how long that particular delusional nutcase was going to manage to avoid getting shot by the cops. Answer: five days, and only because he had a kindergarten student in the bunker with him.

You know, I can understand and empathize a bit with the survivalists who hoard weapons, ammo, and canned goods because they fear a breakdown of society. The idea of having a safe place to hunker down quietly and wait for the looters to all shoot each other makes a certain kind of sense. I personally doubt we're likely to experience a Mad Max/zombie apocalypse dystopia anytime in my lifetime, but preparing for one isn't totally nuts. If nothing else, if there's a major infrastructure failure, e.g., no electricity for several weeks, you're not going to be totally flummoxed.

On the other hand . . . the rationale I've been hearing over and over from various gun nuts is that individuals have to be prepared to stand up to a tyrannical government. Well, good luck with that one. From what I've seen, the people who shout the loudest about the need to stand up to tyranny are the ones who'd have zero luck doing it, especially when their idea of tyranny too often consists of being asked to pay property taxes or abide by local zoning laws. They'll invoke the American Revolution and compare themselves to the Founding Fathers while totally ignoring the fact the American Revolution was the result of a lot of people cooperating with each other. The typical bunker-building gun nut doesn't seem to be able to get along with anyone, probably because the same paranoia that inspires bunker building renders the gun nut incapable of doing effective networking. If you don't trust anyone, usually all it takes is for your little group of "patriots" to exceed the passenger capacity of a Kia Rio and the group starts splintering.

In any case, given the long history of various individuals and groups that have engaged in stand-offs of various types with the government, whether it was local law enforcement, state police, the FBI, or ATF, can anyone recall any incident where the end result was anything other than the bunker-building gun nut being hauled away in a body bag or handcuffs?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pultizer Project: Dragon's Teeth

Dragon's Teeth is the third in a series of eight novels Upton Sinclair wrote chronicling the life of his fictional hero Lanny Budd. Published in 1942 as World War II was intensifying, the novel is set in Europe during the 1930s and describes Adolf Hitler's rise to power from the perspective of one small group of people: Lanny, his immediate family, and his close friends. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for best novel in 1943.

When the novel opens, the Roaring Twenties are winding down and Lanny is pacing nervously in the waiting room of a French hospital while anticipating the birth of his first child. Other than anxiety about the ordeal his wife is experiencing, he seemingly doesn't have a care in the world. The son of a wealthy American gun manufacturer, he's spent most of his life in Europe. His mother, a beautiful socialite, apparently left his father to live with a French artist when Lanny was quite young. As a result, Lanny is far more cosmopolitan than the typical American. He's fluent in multiple languages and has also been fortunate enough to move in social circles where he became acquainted with some of the leading intellectuals and political figures of the time. Several times in the novel, for example, Lanny mentions having been present as a staff aide at the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, no doubt because of his language skills.

The novel is vague about how Lanny spent the decade between the Versailles negotiations and his first child's birth, but somewhere along the line he did manage to acquire an extremely wealthy wife. Lanny's father is well-to-do; Lanny's wife is a multimillionaire, the equivalent of a Vanderbilt. The marriage had apparently been semi-arranged by mutual friends. The courtship period was brief, the marriage sudden, and the pregnancy completely unplanned. Nonetheless, when the book opens, they're happy. They're infatuated with each other and overjoyed at being new parents. They're both content to drift contentedly, one day running into another on the French Riviera. The only annoyance for Irma is that Lanny has "Red" tendencies. Politically, he's a socialist and supports a  worker's school in the town where they live in the south of France. Irma flat out doesn't want to be bothered with politics. She doesn't want to think about political theories, she doesn't want to hear about downtrodden workers, and for sure she doesn't want anything to interfere with her continuing to live the life she's always enjoyed, a life that includes lots of parties and designer gowns and someone else being available to diaper the baby. Her idea of the perfect life is one that revolves around associating with the "smart set" and not worrying at all about petty details like just how much the maids are getting paid.

As for Lanny, although he's enjoying married life, he finds himself becoming increasingly bored and restless. He doesn't like the idea of living off his wife's money -- he wants to be an art dealer, even if it's just to sell his dead stepfather's old painting. He'd also like to spend more time hanging out with musicians and intellectuals playing good music and arguing political theory. He fears he may be what his less affluent socialist friends would consider a parasite, a useless slacker who's contributing nothing to society.

Things continue to drift amiably for a year or two, although there are intimations of bad things to come. Lanny and Irma travel to Berlin to visit Lanny's sister's in-laws, a wealthy Jewish family. Lanny is worried about the increasing influence of Hitler and the Nazis -- he's read Mein Kampf so has a clear idea of how Hitler feels about a number of subjects -- but everyone he talks with scoffs at the notion that Hitler could ever achieve any real power. Besides, even if he did, the wealthy classes in Germany, both the industrialists and the landed gentry, would keep him in line. Because of Lanny's connections and his expertise in art, he eventually is granted the honor of private meetings with the Fuhrer as well as socializing with Goering and Goebbels. Goering even invites Lanny to spend a weekend hunting with him at Goering's Bavarian lodge. The more he sees, the more worried he becomes, and he urges Johannes Rabinowicz (his sister's father-in-law) to take steps to protect himself. Persecution of the Jews has begun, but Johannes believes his wealth and his connections will protect him.

He's wrong, of course, and the second half of the book focuses on Lanny's attempts to help Johannes and his family. At the same time, the evidence is mounting that his wife is a shallow bitch who doesn't care about anyone but herself, although Lanny doesn't recognize that fact nearly as quickly as readers will. When she refuses to believe the Nazis are as bad as Lanny says, he ascribes her disbelief to her basic goodness rather than the fact she simply doesn't want to bothered with anything that doesn't revolve around her. If it was up to Irma, Johannes and his entire family could go to the ovens and she wouldn't blink an eye. She views his concern about people he's been friends with for many years as an inexplicable irritation -- after all, why should he care about them when they're just Jews? I kept hoping Lanny would wake up, smell the coffee, and DTMFA, but it didn't happen in this book. [I may read the next one in the series just in the hopes of seeing the two of them in divorce court.]

The book ends shortly after the Night of Long Knives, the bloody purge of Ernst Roehm and his Brown Shirt  followers from the Nazis. By then, Lanny has seen enough of the inside workings of the Nazis to know that there is no way he can avoid doing everything he can to help German Jews, Socialists, and other victims of persecution escape from Germany. Irma, in contrast, is dismayed that Lanny won't drop his silly interest in helping other people and pay attention to her and her alone.

One of the intriguing things about the book was seeing some of the parallels between events in the 1930s and  the tactics and language employed by the extreme right-wing today. Back in the 1930s, the Nazis kept hammering away at Jews and other non-Aryans as being the cause of all of Germany's problems until eventually enough of the populace bought it and then when the atrocities began, no one objected too loudly. Today Mexicans and Muslims get demonized, and too many people believe the lies -- Mexicans are stealing jobs or all Muslims are terrorists. Under Hitler, workers had their union rights stripped and anyone who tried to organize labor was called an enemy of the state and sent to a concentration camp. We're not imprisoning labor leaders now, but one by one all the workers' rights are being erased. The right wing in the U.S. is trying to do incrementally what Hitler did in one fell swoop, but of course Hitler had an advantage -- he was a charismatic leader who believed his own propaganda.

When Sinclair talks about people not believing what's happening even when it's right in front of them, he could be writing today. Through the character of Lanny, he describes it being clear to any intelligent observer that Hitler and a number of his cronies were batshit crazy and should have been in asylums rather than running for political office, but no one was willing to believe that someone with such a public profile could actually mean what he was saying. The politicians in other countries all scoff at warnings about Hitler. They discount it as "just campaign rhetoric" and "once he's in office, he'll tone it down." We all know how well that worked out.

Although Sinclair was a prolific writer, this was the first of his novels that I'd read. When I think of Upton Sinclair I usually remember what might be his most famous (as well as one of his earliest) work, The Jungle, which was based on his own experiences as a muckraking journalist working incognito in meatpacking plants in Chicago. I've never read The Jungle -- it's one of those books that is a little too famous. I have no burning desire to read graphic descriptions of the disgusting stuff that occurs in abattoirs, especially in the days before regulation and USDA inspections. Having read Dragon's Teeth, however, I may go looking for some of Sinclair's other books. Dragon's Teeth was definitely readable.

Next up on the list is another author and book I'd never heard of until I started this project: Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin. It's another obscure winner; there is no summary on Wikipedia, although there are reviews on Amazon.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Yet another reason to scoff at conspiracy theories

Every so often one of my slightly less than sane acquaintances will regale me with tales of government conspiracies: President Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA, there are alien spaceships stashed in Area 51, the Bush administration was behind 9/11, FEMA is setting up concentration camps, and so on. I laugh at all of them. The federal government is capable of many things, but a successful conspiracy is not one of them. I've worked for the government. I know how thoroughly incompetent it can be. Yes, we got a lot of stuff right.Give the government some clearly defined tasks, and those tasks will be taken care of in a reasonably proficient manner.

On the other hand, there are gems like the one that landed in my In Box yesterday:

Coming Soon: Electronic 1099R Income and Tax Withholding Statement Later this year OPM will be asking annuitant and survivor beneficiaries to visit Services Online to opt-in to receive the Tax Year 2013 electronic 1099R. The Services Online website allows you to view and print your 1099R in electronic form instantly. Watch for more information in the coming months! In the meantime, if you haven't accessed Services Online lately, you may prepare for the upcoming online elections and check on your annuity status and so much more by going to www.servicesonline.opm.gov. Don't worry if you don't remember your password. You can request a new one from the main page of Services Online. If you have set up your security questions and have an email address on file, you may choose to receive your password by email. However, if you don't have an email address on file or haven't set up your security questions your password will be sent by mail. Unfortunately, Services Online is currently unavailable for use by persons OPM has approved as "Representative Payees" for annuitants and survivors. REMINDER: While in Services Online, please verify that your e-mail address is correct in order to receive updates throughout the year. If you have a valid email address and security questions set up within Services Online you will be able to receive your password changes via email.

If I don't have an email address on file, how do they expect me to receive the message?

Perhaps in a day or two a hard copy version of that message will appear in the snail mail box, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for it.