Sunday, December 28, 2014

And how was your holiday?

Ours wasn't bad. Among other things, I got to watch The Baby Whisperer in action. The S.O. is one of those people who small children and dogs love. If an infant is crying, hand it to him and it will usually decide it has better things to do. Not always, of course, but a lot more consistently than if someone is foolish enough to hand the grub to me. I've never been particularly fond of babies -- they're generally a tad too unfinished looking, not to mention the being wet at both ends and emitting unpleasant discharges. And, just like dogs can smell fear, infants can usually sense that I'm not comfortable holding them. Pass an infant to the S.O., though, and the child takes about 2 seconds to make a couple odd little "life is good" contented grunting noises and then falls asleep.

Anyway, the photo is of the S.O. and the latest twig on the family tree, Piper, born December 11 and definitely still in the grub stage. She was all of eleven days old at the time the photo was taken. We made two trips to the older grandson's house this past week, one just before Christmas to drop things off in case we couldn't get there again for awhile due to bad weather, and one yesterday to have a belated Christmas dinner. It was nice. The grandson is now 24 and seems to have turned out reasonably well -- he's gainfully employed and he's happy being a dad. This was the second year we've done Christmas at his house; he was talking about making switching things up a little next year and coming here to the farm. Which would be nice, except this house is much too small and the guest quarters are not winterized. Although with a little bit of advance planning it would be do-able -- there are motels in L'Anse and Baraga. There is no rule that says planning to have Christmas dinner at our house would also entail everyone staying here overnight. (In fact, that's what the S.O. and I did last year -- booked a motel room in Ironwood to avoid the possibility of driving the 100 miles home in a snowstorm at night. This year we did it as a day trip, although we went prepared for an overnight stay if the weather turned nasty after we got there.)

Justin did suggest an alternate plan. Instead of celebrating the holidays here in the U.P. we could all descend on his aunt Tammi for a week. I wonder how much advance warning we should give her?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

'tis the season of useless gifts

I was wandering around one of the local retail establishments recently and it struck me (as it does every year) that December has become the month when several aisles in all the stores fill up with bizarre crap you never see during any other season. It is truly the season of useless gifts, i.e., the gadgets that no one in their right mind would ever buy for themselves.

Take, for example, this little gem, the hot dog toaster. Who on earth would ever consider spending money on a device that cooks two, count 'em two hot dogs at a shot? Why would anyone want something like this cluttering up cabinet or countertop space in their home? If you're a person living alone, perhaps an argument could made that it would be ideal for you. On the other hand, why bother with a device like this that's going to require cleaning (all that grease that drips off a hot dog has to go somewhere) when if you just want one or two hot dogs you can cook them in under two minutes in a microwave -- or grill them on a fork over the burner on a gas kitchen range. No one needs a special appliance for cooking minuscule amounts of hot dogs; this is a device that was developed solely to occupy retail shelf space during the Christmas season. It is a desperation gift, something a person buys when they feel obligated to give something -- anything!! -- to another person but is too lazy or (I'll be charitable) too stressed to put much thought into it.

The classic desperation gifts used to be potentially practical items like scarves and mittens and monogrammed handkerchiefs. I'm not sure just when the switch to cheap crap made in China occurred or why. Although the why probably has to do with profit margins -- you can sell a POS hot dog toaster for a lot more than you can sell a scarf even if the actual production costs might not be much different. You know, no one's going to want to pay much for a scarf (unless you're buying it at Nieman Marcus and they're claiming it's made from some obscure exotic fiber), but come up with a "retro" design for a useless appliance and suddenly you're talking actual money.

I know, I know. There are people who will say that giving someone a useless POS gift shows that you "care." I've got to call bullshit on that one. How can anyone say "It's the thought that counts" when they hand you a gift that demonstrates that they didn't think at all? When you give someone a gift that they have no use for, that doesn't fit their lifestyle or their personality, what you're actually saying is "I care so little that I'm giving to grab the first thing I spot on sale on an end cap at Shopko and call it good." Is it really that difficult to remember enough about a person to make it possible to give him or her a gift that says you were thinking specifically about that person when you bought it or made it?

Of course, it could be worse. I once knew a person who was a shill for Mary Kay. When Christmas rolled around, she gave everyone the rejects from her sample kit. Nothing says someone cares like that person giftwrapping slightly used lipsticks in the colors no one liked when she tried selling them and then handing those lipsticks to people who don't wear make-up.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Speaking of sweeteners

This what I'm using in my coffee now. The post about agave nectar reminded me this can of pure cane syrup was sitting in the cabinet. The Younger Daughter gave it to us while she was living in Texas. I've had old-fashioned cane syrup before -- I bought a pint jar at the Jarrell Plantation in Georgia (a really nifty state park, incidentally) a few years ago -- and knew that it had a stronger flavor than most commercial syrups. Cane syrup is what you get when you crush sugar cane and boil down the juice. In commercial sugar production, the juice is centrifuged -- the lighter-colored sugar rises to the top and eventually becomes refined sugar. The darker solids that sink end up as molasses. Cane syrup is what happens when you boil cane juice to evaporate liquids and stabilize the sugars without using a centrifuge. You end up with a product that tastes vaguely like molasses, but is lighter in color and doesn't have as strong a taste. The Jarrell Plantation, incidentally, does living history demonstrations of how sugar cane was crushed and processed in the antebellum South. I'm not sure if that's the source of the bottled cane syrup in their gift shop, but it could be. The process for making cane syrup is remarkably simple: you need something to crush the cane, something to catch the juice as it runs off, and a huge cast iron kettle in which to boil that juice down.

Mule-powered cane crusher
In any case, we'd been gifted with the can of cane syrup, it had migrated to the back of the cabinet and forgotten, and then I had the agave experience. So now I'm using cane syrup in my morning coffee. How does it compare with other sweeteners? Not surprisingly, the calorie count is about the same. The Helm Farms syrup does have a vague molasses-like flavor, but it's just a hint. It's not as strong as the flavor of the Jarrell syrup.

When I was Googling cane syrup, I found a New York Times article that quoted cane syrup aficionados who claimed old-fashioned ribbon cane syrup was much, much better than refined sugar. According to one person, sugar has a bitter taste compared to cane syrup. He also claimed to be able to tell exactly which field sugar cane had been harvested from by the taste of the syrup, kind of like wine snobs who swear they can tell which hillside in Burgundy produced a certain vintage. Apparently, if you want to use an authentic sweetener down South, you should be using cane syrup in your tea, your baking, and anything else that requires a form of sugar. I don't know if I'd go that far. At this point, I'm feeling the same way about the cane syrup as I did about the agave: it's working in the coffee, but am I going to actively seek more out once the current supply runs out? Probably not. I know there are still commercial cane mills out there that produce ribbon cane syrup -- you can buy Steen's cane syrup through Amazon if you don't live in the South -- but why bother, especially once the cane syrup is gone, I've got an industrial size jug of Sysco honey the Older Daughter gave us a few months ago.*

Although what I should probably work on is eliminating both the sweetener and the coffee from my diet. I don't need the empty calories and the caffeine is not good for my SVT. Oh well. I managed to break my Dr. Pepper addiction. Maybe someday I'll manage to step away from caffeine completely. (And the proverbial pigs will fly.)

*A slight digression: I know people who would freak if they heard me talk about using cane syrup that was more than a year or two old or honey that's been sitting in a cabinet for god knows how long. News flash, people, sugar doesn't rot. Neither does honey. They're what gets used to preserve other things. Honey is the only food that for sure never rots. Archeologists have found jars in Egyptian tombs where the honey was 3,000 years old and still good. I'm not sure if pure sugar falls into that same category, but I'm willing to bet that it does. If archeologists someday find a sugar canister that's thousands of years old, the sugar in it may have turned into a rock from absorbing moisture, but it's still going to be perfectly edible sugar. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

It was a Harlan Ellison sort of day

I spent the afternoon at the museum alternating between cursing the Internal Revenue Service and muttering about now-deceased members of the historical society. For various reasons, known (as far as I can tell) only to some desk monkey at the IRS, the historical society has gotten stuck with the task of completing a 990-EZ. The 990-EZ is five pages long and asks for so much information that I can't help but wonder just what else they could possibly ask for on the regular 990. I hope I never get to find out because the 990-EZ is enough of a nightmare on its own.

Among other things, in addition to the five pages of questions, it asks for two attachments: Schedule A and Schedule O. Schedule A is where a nonprofit gets to break down its finances for the past five years; Schedule O is basically a sheet of lined paper where you get to lie about anything that doesn't fit neatly into predetermined categories. And when I say break down I mean exactly that: how much income did we receive in the form of grants, donations, membership dues; how much came from fund-raising efforts; how much was interest or dividends? How much in-kind support did we get from local government or other entities? How much did we spend on maintenance, rent, whatever. And lots lots more, all the way back to 2009. I really, really hate detail work, especially when I'm sure there's some sort of deadline (which I've probably missed) hanging over my head.

I have to say in all honesty that the forms would not actually be that hard to deal with if the data existed to plug into the appropriate blank spaces. Long and boring, yes, but technically difficult? No, assuming, of course, that one has actual financial records to refer to while filling in the blanks.

I managed to come up with some numbers for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010. The easiest year to do was the most recent -- 2013. That's the year I became treasurer and set up the Excel spreadsheet. 2012, 2011, and 2010 weren't bad either. My predecessor was well-organized. She didn't use an old-fashioned ledger or do a spreadsheet, but her monthly hard copy reports are nice and clear. The biggest problem I had with the those years it was sometimes impossible to separate out donations from other income -- the monthly treasurer's reports would occasionally do a lump sum (Sales & Donations) that aggregated data that should have been kept separate.

Keeping income streams separate, incidentally, is an issue that I've brought up at numerous meetings -- we need to draw nice sharp lines between the money we take in as admission fees, the money that gets spent in the gift shop, and the money people are nice enough to drop in the donations jar. These are distinctions that the IRS definitely draws but most of the society members have trouble recognizing. I'd been obsessing about it because I'd like us to have a nice firm visitor count but maybe if I bring it up at a meeting in the context of retaining our nonprofit status it'll sink in. But that's a minor quibble in the overall scheme of things, considering I hit a blank wall when I got 5 years back in the files.

2009 is a black hole. I can't find any treasurer's reports. Ditto bank statements. Nothing. Nada. Someone mentioned a few months back that one of the sons of the society's deceased president had a bunch of stuff he'd found in his father's house that he was planning to bring to the museum. He never did. I have this rather sick feeling that there were a whole lot of historical society records that had been sitting at the dead guy's home office and have since gone to the landfill in Ontonagon County. This is the shoe that I've been waiting to hear drop for the past 22 months. It finally dropped. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. The deceased president had a really hard time drawing lines between the various areas of his life. He was involved in a lot of different things in the community, and they all overlapped. It didn't help that he'd been president of the historical society for so many years that to him the museum had become an extension of his own home and vice versa. I figured that out when I was going through the vertical files last year. And the more I saw of that, the more I worried that sooner or later it was going to end up biting us in the butt.

Well, it's now later, we've been bitten, and it's not fun to deal with. We're a 501(c)3. We should have been keeping meticulous records. We didn't, and as the current treasurer I get to untangle the mess. I don't think the IRS is going to do anything nasty to us, but you never know. After all, they cursed us with the 990-EZ because the 990-N (an electronic post card that basically says, hey, we still exist) got filed a couple weeks late. Maybe I should stop referring to the professional paper pushers as desk monkeys. Either that, I need to remember that even desk monkeys can bite.

It did occur to me (again) that the Tea Party types who were fulminating about the IRS the other year really had nothing to bitch about. The IRS drives everyone crazy; they're an equal opportunity annoyance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What if they gave a war and no one cared?

Remember when we invaded Canada? I didn't think so. I recently read J. Mackay Hitsman's excellent history, The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History, and learned a whole bunch of stuff they never bothered teaching us in American history class. Hitsman was a Canadian historian who specialized in military history. Not surprisingly, the Canadians have a slightly different perspective on the War of 1812 than we Americans do.

Now, I did know a few odd bits of trivia about the War of 1812. Thanks to an August Derleth book, The Captive Island, my grandmother gave me when I was in about 5th grade, I knew the British had taken Mackinac Island back from the Americans. The Derleth book is a young adult historical novel about an American youth who escapes from the island to bring information to the Americans at Detroit, which the British also took away from the United States, at least briefly. Having worked for the Park Service, I knew about the huge honking monument at Put In Bay, Ohio, dedicated to Oliver Hazard Perry and his fleet's victory over the British back in 1813. And I had been to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, back in the 1980s and saw the poor saps doing their re-enactments on a hot July day while dressed in the heavy wool uniforms common in the early 19th century. I have a vague recollection of kind of scoffing at the idea of a fort being built on Lake Ontario to protect us all from Canadian invaders even though the interpretive material at the time no doubt mentioned there had been an actual battle at Oswego.

In any event, when I thought about the War of 1812 at all I remembered Fort McHenry, the origins of "The Star Spangled Banner," the White House getting torched, and the fact the Battle of New Orleans was fought after a peace accord had already been signed in Europe. Does it still count as a victory if the war ended before the battle took place? What never crossed my mind was the fact that the active front of the war, the main line of battle, so to speak, was the United States-Canadian border. There was a fair amount of naval action on the Atlantic Ocean in the form of British warships blocking access to American ports with American privateers retaliating by harassing British merchant ships, but Hitsman makes it clear that the major military operations, both naval and land-based, took place along the northern border of the United States. This could be a function of the author's obviously pro-Canadian bias, but it does seem to match up with the facts. Both countries worked frantically in their Great Lakes ports to construct more warships, from small gunboats to frigates that came close to qualifying as ships of the line, because both sides recognized that whoever controlled the Lakes had the upper hand in the war.

Actually, I shouldn't describe the concerns in such sweeping terms. It would be more accurate to say that the guys doing the actual fighting recognized that whoever controlled the Lakes would have the upper hand. No one else seemed to care very much. In North America, despite the war there was a lot of cross border commercial activity: the Canadians bought supplies of various types from the merchants in New York and New England,and vice versa. Ports that were supposedly blockaded actually weren't because so many special exceptions and passes were issued that the blockades and trade embargoes were essentially meaningless. The War of 1812 was a war no one really wanted -- everyone recognized that it was hurting business, citizens in both countries realized that there was always the danger the Indian allies on either side could be hard to control and tended to have a take no prisoners approach, and none of the men in the state and provincial militias particularly wanted to fight. In fact, members of the New York state militia flat out refused to cross the border when ordered to pursue British troops into Canada, saying that it was illegal to make them fight on foreign soil (and wouldn't it be nice if American troops would do that now? Just say hell, no, I'm not getting on a plane to BFE to fight people who don't even know where the U.S. is?)

Adding to the complicated mix was the fact that many of the settlers in Canada were people who had been living in what was now the United States and decided to move following the Revolutionary War, some for economic reasons and some because they viewed Canada as just another frontier that the U.S. was going to eventually cross. Instead of going west to settle in what is now Ohio or Illinois, they opted to go north to what is now the province of Ontario. Some were loyal to Great Britain, some were loyal to the United States, and no doubt a fair number shifted their allegiance based on what they perceived to benefit themselves the most.

Over in Europe, Great Britain had no choice but to focus most of its attention on the Napoleonic wars. Thus, when the War of 1812 began, there were no British troops to spare to send to Canada. By the time there were troops and supplies available that could be diverted to North America, peace negotiations had ended the conflict. The war itself had effectively been a draw. Neither side gained any territory, but neither side lost any. The United States had invaded and seized sites in Upper Canada; the British had invaded and seized sites in the United States (e.g., Fort Michilimackinac, Detroit). Both had retreated from those sites so neither was in possession at the time of negotiations, hence, an argument could not be made for retention of conquered territory.

The Incredible War of 1812 was an interesting book. I had no idea there'd ever been a Battle of Plattsburgh or that the British government issued medals for something called the Battle of Crysler's Farm. I did know there had been a battle at the River Raisin near Detroit -- the site is, if memory serves me right, the nation's most recently created National Battlefield park -- but was struck by just how low the numbers were of the combatants and others involved. By contemporary (or even Civil War) standards, it wasn't much of a battle. It's also hard to believe that, as the park's website puts it, the phrase "Remember the Raisin!" served as a rallying cry, especially when what seems to have swung the battle in the British favor was the complete incompetence of the U.S. commanders. First, General William Hull had surrendered all of Michigan Territory to the British in 1812. Then, in January 1813 the Americans found themselves surrendering to the British for a second time. In the aftermath of that battle, Native Americans allied with the British raided the Frenchtown settlement, burning houses, carrying off prisoners, and killing about half a dozen civilians. In a logical world, "Remember the Raisin!" would have been the rallying cry for a couple of courts martial. But apparently not in frontier America. Although Winchester did quietly slink away later in the year -- he had had a checkered, apparently rather sleazy career, and apparently figured out that (a) there was no money to be made on the battlelines in the Northwest Territories and (b) he might end up dead by accident. He didn't exactly resign, but he did get replaced.

Minor digression: considering that almost 200 years had passed before that battlefield park had been created and it is in the southeast corner of the Downer Peninsula, an area that's seen wave after wave of development, what exactly was left there that made it merit park status? It does seem like the site could have been adequately commemorated with one of those book on a stick historic markers the State of Michigan erects if there's sufficient public pressure. Oh well. . . the Park Service can always use a few punishment parks, places to shuffle incompetent superintendents off to when they're not yet eligible for retirement but need to maintain the illusion of still being gainfully employed.

There were numerous other skirmishes on both sides of the border on the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the banks of the Niagara River. Both sides engaged in behavior the other side condemned as barbaric, e.g., the Americans burned the government buildings at York (the capital of Upper Canada). In fact, when the British were condemned for later trying to burn down the President's house in Washington, their response was they were simply giving the Americans a taste of what they had done in York. And so it went for two years, seesawing back and forth across the border and neither side gaining much of an advantage for very long. In the end, the border remained where it had been, the British continued their impressment policies on the high seas, and, other than for the guys who died, the war didn't change much of anything.

Would I recommend The Incredible War of 1812 to other readers? Only if military history fascinates you. Overall, I thought it was worth reading but have to confess there were sections where Hitsman really got into minutiae and I had a hard time staying focused. On the other hand, it is well-written and meticulously footnoted. There is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia hiding in the notes, so I guess I'd recommend it to historians. All historians love good footnotes.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

First, beard baubles. Now this:

Dyed armpit hair.

Seriously. According to the Washington Post, more and more women are deciding not just to forego shaving their pits (a common choice during the winter months) but to go one step farther and dye them.

And, having dyed the pits, some are moving on to the next step.

Bedazzlers. Beads, rhinestones, and extensions. In their armpits. Some people definitely have way too much free time and disposable income.

It does occur to me that from the viewpoint of the aesthetician dying a couple armpits may be a step up from doing full Brazilians. It's not quite as up close and personal. Then again, if dyed pits become popular enough, women may decide to stop waxing, regrow their pubic hair, and request coochie dye jobs, too.

We live in interesting times.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


New investment opportunity for KBIC?

I haven't heard too much locally about the Justice Department's recent memo regarding marijuana cultivation and sales on tribal lands, but surely there's someone on the KBIC council who can smell a business opportunity when one arises. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, "the Justice Department will generally not attempt to enforce federal marijuana laws on federally recognized tribes that choose to allow it, as long as they meet eight federal guidelines, including that marijuana not be sold to minors and not be transported to areas that prohibit it." 

I think there'd probably be a lot of hand-wringing going on over the potential dangers of commercializing pot if the subject ever gets openly discussed because reservations are often already troubled by substance abuse: alcohol, narcotics, meth, you name it. But I'd be inclined to think that the county would be a lot better off if the drunks and the tweakers evolved into stoners. Drunks get belligerent, start fights, and kill people by driving while intoxicated. Tweakers go crazy, set up shake and bake labs that endanger people, and engage in petty crime to feed their habit. What do stoners do? Get the munchies and giggle a lot. What's the worst that might happen? The profit margins for the local pizza places would improve.

It will be interesting to see what happens if KBIC does decide to get into growing and selling weed. Most of the Village of Baraga, if not all of it, falls within the reservation boundaries. Theoretically, depending on how the tribal council decided to write its laws concerning pot, someone could open a cannabis cafe in one of the currently vacant businesses on Superior Avenue. For that matter, the tribe could add a line of ganja gourmet items to the menu at the restaurant in the casino and put pot brownies next to the Little Debbies in the gas station convenience stores. Well, maybe not right next to the Little Debbies, more like behind the counter with the cigarettes.

Medical marijuana is already legal in Michigan. The biggest problem people have when they're certified to use medical marijuana is finding a good supply. It may be legal to use it, but it's not legal for anyone to sell it. The one loophole is that if you're certified to use medical marijuana, you're allowed to grow up to 6 plants for your own personal use. How you're supposed to get the seeds to start with is, of course, a mystery.
Most people, however, who have medical conditions that benefit from marijuana use (chronic pain, glaucoma, side effects of cancer treatments) aren't that keen on the idea of having to be farmers as well as users, especially when pot is not an especially fast-growing plant. It's not like growing radishes where you plant them one week and by the end of the month they're ready to eat. From seed to weed can take 6 months or more -- there are ways to make it happen faster (grow lights can force a plant into the flowering stage when it's still quite small) but even with the ultimate in hydroponic equipment and plants that are hybrids bred to grow fast, it's not an overnight process.

In short, there is a potential market of buyers. The biggest catch would be that anyone buying marijuana on a reservation would have to use it there -- it would still be illegal to transport it beyond the tribal boundaries. I could get some pot brownies to eat at the museum in Baraga; I couldn't pick some up to bring home for the S.O. to enjoy, too. (It occurs to me that the banker's box full of mangled matchbooks would probably look like a lot more fun to go through if I were thoroughly stoned when I did it. The downside, of course, is I'd probably have really poor judgement while doing so.)

On the other hand, it is now legal to buy marijuana in Colorado but it remains illegal to transport it out of the state. Pot sales in Colorado are booming, but so far as I know the DEA and other law enforcement agencies haven't set up checkpoints at the border to check tourists' luggage. (Do I want to test that perception the next time I go visit my mother? Probably not.)  

Given that a number of states have legalized marijuana, either partially (medical marijuana) or totally, and the reservations have been given carte blanche to do the same, I have a hunch we'll see the complete legalization of marijuana nationally within a decade or two. Law enforcement won't be happy, but then they never are.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Blogger weirdness

I see that Blogger is busy being weird again. Word verification seems to have become the default on a number of blogs that never used to have it. Even weirder, on a couple blogs I visit regularly it's now impossible to leave comments. The comment box is there, everything looks normal, but when I type the cursor moves but no characters show up on screen. I have no idea if the comment is registering or not. Very, very strange.

More adventures in cataloging

I have no doubt mentioned more than once that one of the things I do as a volunteer at the local historical society museum is cataloging. I've been cataloging the archives as well as the artifacts. It's been interesting, and not always in a good way.

Sometimes it's a case of opening a box that's come down from the attic or in from the storage building and realizing that critters have been it. There's nothing quite so disheartening as lifting something that would have been really cool for the museum to own and discovering that mice had figured out that shredded fabric makes a great nest-building material. Sometimes there's the heartbreak of watching old documents crumble before my eyes because they were improperly stored in a hot dry sunlit area (the attic). And sometimes it's a case of "holy crap, I can't believe someone thought this garbage was museum-worthy."

Picture, if you will, a banker's box packed full of used matchbooks, matchbooks that are crumpled and mangled and just generally weird. Hundreds of matchbooks, and none of them are in a condition that a serious matchbook collector would look twice at. What is the point? What do I do with this stuff? Paw through it all looking for matchbooks from area businesses that no longer exist? When I first popped the top off that box I spotted a matchbook for a political race from the 1970s, so that was kind of neat. I actually went through a brief period of feeling moderately excited about the stash. That was before I took a closer look and realized just what poor condition most of the matchbooks were in. The Nixon campaign matchbook may have been mangled, but it was still worth saving as political ephemera. But what if that's the only good thing in the box? Is it really worth going through the entire pile hoping to find another pony?

I found the matchbook stash last spring. The box has been sitting in a corner of the office since then imploring me to do something with it. I came close to asking my high school student intern to go through it this past summer but decided I didn't want to totally discourage her. Readers may recall she was bummed out enough when we brought boxes down from the attic and discovered stuff like three dozen pageant banners and a whole lot of bug-filled cheap wigs. I don't have an intern for this school year yet and can't help but wonder if word about the boring reality of what the museum does and does not have has spread among the students at Baraga High.  

In any case, it turned out those three dozen banners and the box of beetle-ridden wigs were not the end of the pageant stuff. I recently found more. In fact, I have several boxes sitting in the museum office now waiting for me to finish going through them. It's all pageant stuff: a couple black frock coats, a taffeta gown, multiple banners (just how many hundred did the pageant committee pay for?!), a dozen or so felt pennants, and lots and lots of remarkably disgusting wigs, most of which were worn by (as the pageant ads proudly proclaimed) REAL INDIANS portraying Indians. I also discovered half a dozen Naugahyde loincloths. I wonder how the REAL INDIANS felt about wearing them?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I'm in better shape than I thought

I had the odd experience yesterday of suddenly feeling remarkably young and healthy. I decided recently to go looking for a new primary care physician and, as long as I was doctor shopping, to seek out a geriatrician. After all, I'm a geezer now. It made sense to go looking for a physician who specializes in taking care of old people. People can try to put a positive spin on aging, make ridiculous statements like 60 is the new 50, and talk like they're going to live forever, but the reality is that once you hit your 60s you can no longer claim to be "middle-aged." You're old.

And you start feeling old. You wake up some days with assorted aches and pains and you haven't even done anything yet. You get nervous when you have to get up on a step stool to get something off a high shelf because the idea of falling is getting scarier and scarier. You can feel yourself sliding into that broken hip demographic. It's hitting you more and more than you're not just old, you're elderly. And then you walk into the waiting room at the geriatrician's office.

Holy wah, I'm young again. No walker, no cane, no oxygen bottle in tow, no one hovering by my side making sure I don't fall over . . . suddenly I am apparently the healthiest person in the room. It felt . . . odd.

As for why I went seeking a new PCP, among other things the doctor I had been seeing had mentioned that she's not happy with the weather here on the tundra. I got the distinct impression that as soon as her contract with the local clinic is up, she was going to disappear over the horizon to a warmer climate. I was due for an annual check-up so decided it was a good time to make the switch. I've got to drive farther, but I think it's going to be worth it.

The doctor, incidentally, affirmed I am in good shape in general, although (no surprise) I should establish a formal exercise routine. I figure that if I've gotten to the age I am now without incorporating a formal exercise routine into my daily schedule, it's not likely to happen in the future, but you never know.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Be careful what you wish for

It hit me the other day that there's another way to look at President Obama's executive action on immigration and deportation. Part of the proposed policy is that certain categories of currently undocumented aliens would be eligible for "deferred action." That is, they could apply for permission to stay in this country temporarily. There would be a three-year period where those previously undocumented persons could come out of the woodwork, get legal jobs, pay taxes, and generally be productive members of society. During those 3 years they would be free from the threat of deportation. That's the positive spin.

On the other hand, the deferred action on deportation is not a permanent deferral -- it's a 3-year breathing space. So what's the point of it? Someone who is here illegally will have had a chance to briefly live without fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hauling him or her off to a deportation center, but what happens when the 3 years is up?  Does anyone seriously believe Congress will come up with a path to citizenship or a general amnesty any time in the next couple of years? What will people who apply for that deferred action have achieved?

Well, among other things, they'll have gotten their names on a list of people who are (were?) undocumented aliens. They'll have gone from living in the shadows and wondering if ICE knows who they are to having their names in a register and guaranteeing that la migra not only knows who they are but also has a photograph, a street address, cell phone number, names of various relatives, and everything else they'll need to track their mojado asses down and stick them on a bus to Neuvo Laredo or Mexicali the instant that 3-year grace period is up.

I wonder how many undocumented persons are having similar thoughts? Are they reading the information on the White House and Department of Homeland Security web sites and doing the happy dance? Or are they kind of pausing and thinking about arm bands and yellow stars? President Obama has already set a record for number of deportations annually compared to any previous administration. If I was here illegally, I'd be thinking long and hard about whether or not the short term gain of a deferred deportation is worth the long term risk of drawing attention to myself. It's going to be interesting to see how all this plays out over the next couple of years.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The stupid runs deep

I've been catching tidbits of news lately. I try not to listen to any of it for too long because so much is profoundly depressing, but there are exceptions. The anti-Obama rhetoric Republicans are indulging in over immigration is more amusing than anything else. I'm not exactly sure just what the appropriate reaction is -- laughter or pity? -- when the idiots in Congress start bloviating about cutting off funding to Homeland Security to prevent Obama's executive action regarding immigration enforcement from taking effect. Once again Ted Cruz and his ilk are displaying all the careful thought processes of a typical two year old throwing a tantrum in the aisle of a local Safeway. I'd ask just how stupid are these guys, but I'm a little afraid of the answer.

First, and most obvious, what has Cruz et al. so worked up was President Obama saying that he was going to direct immigration officials to narrow their focus when it comes to deportations. That is, instead of casting a broad net that sweeps up everyone, concentrate instead on the undocumented aliens who have committed crimes, i.e., go after actual felons and gangbangers instead of harassing the dishwashers at Olive Garden. Somehow saying that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (an agency within the Department of Homeland Security) should be more focused in its efforts gets translated by the right into an unconstitutional power grab by the President. WTF? President Obama says, in effect, "do your job more efficiently" and suddenly he's a tyrant? Give me a break.

In any case, just what effect do the right-wingers think cutting off funding to Homeland Security will have? They're upset because the President has directed an agency that's part of the executive branch of government to NOT do something for a short period of time. This may come as a shock to some people, but NOT doing something doesn't cost any money. If anything, it saves some. So, if you cut off funding to the agency that's already been told not to do something, what's the net effect? Well, you've just made it a lot harder for that agency to do the stuff you actually want it to do (border patrol, for example) and you've had absolutely no effect on the thing that pissed you off. Does that make any sense whatsoever? I didn't think so.

Because border patrol, airport security, and other functions of Homeland Security are considered essential services of the government, none of those things will actually stop if Congress does try to withhold funding. All that will happen is the poor saps working for those agencies will see their paychecks stop while they're expected to continue working with the expectation they'll get paid eventually. It'll be a mess, a fair number of people will quit, and in the end it'll cost the government (which is another way of saying us, the taxpayers) a lot more money than if the Republicans had just had the basic smarts (and balls) to get serious about immigration reform on their own.

I'm not even going to get into just how blazingly, unbelievably stupid it is for border states that bitch constantly about porous borders to now turn around and sue the President over an executive order that directs ICE to improve border enforcement. Not surprisingly, Texas (ground zero for stupidity in this country) is leading the pack.

The stupid, it burns.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Thanks for making me hate Christmas

It has begun. It started a little later than in previous years, but the deluge of "Don't say Happy Holidays!" and "Keep Christ in Christmas" messages landing in my In Box and showing up on Facebook is now in full flow. And as the annual rhetoric about the nonexistent war on Christmas heats up, once again I find myself thinking Jehovah's Witnesses just might have the right idea. They look at the historical origins of the holiday we all call Christmas; note that it is not in the Bible in any way, shape, or form; pronounce it (as it most certainly is) a Pagan Holiday; and choose to ignore it.

I wonder if they get as annoyed by all the annual stupidity over the mythical war on Christmas as I do? I've never been able to figure out how anyone with even two brain cells to rub together would believe the garbage that the rabble rousers on Fox spew each year about Christmas being under attack, but apparently a fair number of people fall for the nonsense. How anyone could believe there's a "war on Christmas" when stores start putting out Christmas merchandise right after Labor Day, every city in the country spends money on holiday decorations -- and let's get real; no municipality is going to bother with lighting displays just to celebrate the winter solstice (although it would be nice if they would; maybe some of the decorations would end up slightly less tacky) -- and over 80% of the population of the United States self-identifies as Christian is beyond me. How do you persecute a majority? It's logically impossible.

So what does it say when people start whining and bitching about other people saying "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" or go off on a rant when they see "Xmas" instead of "Christmas"? To me it says they're mean-spirited ignoramuses who like sucking all the joy out of the season. Someone wishes you well by saying "Happy holidays" and you respond by bitching at them? You're making the Grinch look good.

I used to sort of look forward to the holiday season. Christmas isn't my favorite holiday, but I liked having an excuse to bake gum drop cakes, do some specialized crafting, and put up a few decorations. It helped brighten the darkest time of the year. Not anymore. Now I find myself bracing for the first of the sanctimonious missives -- or worse, an in my face rant -- from one of my idiot cousins (and I've got several to pick from, unfortunately) and praying for January to get here fast.

So thank you, all you warriors in the battle to defend Christmas, for doing a stellar job of killing what it is you claim you're trying to save. You're doing a great job of turning a cheerful time of year into one that people dread.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Pulitzer Project: The Town

Like most of the books I've read as part of my Pulitzer project, The Town was a book I'd never heard of written by an author whose name sounded vaguely familiar but with whose work I was completely unfamiliar. I had a faint recollection of having seen books by Conrad Richter on library shelves but I was reasonably sure I'd never read any of them. If The Town is typical of his work, I may be feeling relieved.

That's actually an odd thing to say because The Town was definitely readable. I picked it up at the library on Tuesday and finished it last night: three evenings' worth of reading comes close to dropping into mind candy territory. Unlike some of the other "classics" I've had to struggle through, The Town did not feel like work. It just felt . . . lame.

I'll explain, but first a brief overview of the book. The Town is the final installment in a trilogy that included The Trees and The Fields. The three books chronicle the lives of a pioneer family that left the eastern United States at about the time of the American Revolution and settled in Ohio. The first book apparently details their arrival in the wilderness, the second one gets into their efforts at farming, and by book three civilization has arrived. The little settlement that began with just one family progresses from being a village to a town to an actual city and the county seat. The Town is told through the perspective of three members of the Wheeler family: Sayward Wheeler, the middle-aged wife of an attorney (Portius Wheeler), their youngest child, Chancey Wheeler, and Rosa Tench, the illegitimate daughter of Portius Wheeler. Chancey and Rosa are approximately the same age. It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination for the reader to figure out where that particular story line is going to lead, especially when neither child seems to be particularly grounded in reality. There's a lot of tiptoeing around and dropping of various hints, but no adult seems to have brains enough to simply say in plain English, hey, young idiots, you're brother and sister. Naturally, by the time anyone does come right out and tell them why they shouldn't be hanging out together and acting like they're courting, the damage has been done and the inevitable tragedy results.

Of course, if anyone had bothered to be blunt with Chancey and Rosa when they were still young, the book would have been a lot shorter.

In addition to spending multiple chapters hinting at the risk of an incestuous love affair, the book looks at life from the perspective of Sayward Wheeler, the self-styled "woodsy" girl who likes to think of herself as a simple pioneer but ends up being the richest person in town as well as mother of the governor of the state. She's annoyed when her husband talks her into selling off pieces of the farmland she inherited from her parents so that the town can grow and a canal can be built, and she's also annoyed when Portius insists they build a good brick house and move out of the simple log cabin she'd spent most of her life in. When the book begins, Sayward has hit menopause. She's borne nine children and, at the ancient age of approximately 40, is wondering if she's going to live long enough to see her youngest and frailest son, Chancey, survive past childhood. She does, of course. She doesn't die until the eve of the Civil War. Along the way she finds her sister who had been lost in the woods decades earlier and had been presumed dead, sees one of her daughters end up married to an English aristocrat, and watches most of her other children grow up to be successful adults who marry and provide her with grandchildren.

Conrad Richter reportedly engaged in exhaustive research while writing this book and the others in the trilogy. He reviewed hundreds of documents to get a sense for the speech patterns and dialects of the early 19th century. His work has been praised for the accuracy of its portrayals of frontier life and folkways.

So why, if the book was well-researched and decently written, was I left with an overall impression of "meh"? Maybe it was the totally cliched incest subplot. Maybe it was the folksy way Sayward expressed herself -- maybe it was accurate, but it also came across as twee. Not as bad as some books that lay the colorful dialect on with a trowel, but still not quite believable. It was just a tad too cute. Or maybe it was all the weird names too many of the characters have. Did people back in early 19th century Ohio really pick names every bit as odd as some of the brain-dead names we see today? A couple of the Wheeler kids have normal names but "Sooth" and "Dezia" aren't among them. I can accept that some names were just misspelled versions of common names -- Jary instead of Gerry or Jerry, for example -- but there are limits.

Okay. Where do I rank this one? Right in the middle of the pack. It didn't stink, it was quite readable, and it wasn't work. On the other hand, it also didn't particularly impress me. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's probably a 5. Would I recommend it to other readers? Not really. I'd have to throw in a bunch of qualifiers. You know, "It's easy reading but it's too cliched." "It's easy reading but the characters aren't really believable." Etc.

Next up on the list: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. That is a book I have heard of. In fact, the book is so well-known that I was sure the L'Anse Public Library would have it in its collection. Nope. All those Danielle Steeles must take up too much shelf space because this is still another novel I have to order through Interlibrary Loan. I am happy to have a local public library, but, holy wah, there's a lot of low quality dreck taking up way too much space on its shelves.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Another reason to never visit India

India used to be close to the top of my "when I win the lottery" travel list. It's a huge diverse country with amazing historical sites and a fascinating history. I have a friend who teaches south Asian art history and I've occasionally envied him for the time he got to spend in Pakistan and India. Not anymore.

I knew the cities are crowded, dirty, and probably reek, but in the back of my mind there was still a vague "I'd like to go there someday" feeling. Even watching contestants on "Amazing Race" trying to turn cow shit into fuel didn't really discourage me. Everyone knows India is a country of strange contrasts: congested urban centers with modern skyscrapers and cows being milked in alleys, crowded buses and taxis jostling for driving space with ox carts, incredible wealth right next door to appalling poverty. Then I started seeing an occasional article about the public hygiene problems. Turns out the streets of Mumbai and Kolkata aren't just filled with cow shit. There's also plenty of the human kind. For a country that is becoming a global economic powerhouse, India suffers from an astounding lack of toilets. The public pissoirs and water closets that are easy to find in most industrialized countries are astoundingly rare in India. It is apparently a common sight on city streets to see men casually step up to the side of a building to urinate. Any building. I've heard people complain that city streets in New York can smell like piss. I have a hunch you haven't really smelled human urine until you've been to India.

Okay, if the men are pissing against the sides of buildings, just where are people defecating? You got it. In the streets. Maybe not quite as publicly as the dudes marking their territory on the sides of buildings, but pretty damn close to it. Apparently most people wait for the cover of darkness to go out and squat in the gutters, but not all. So the fragrance of India consists of the smell of rotting human waste on top of the cow shit and miscellaneous other animals' crap. I suppose I could live with that, especially as a tourist. It couldn't be any worse than living downwind from a hog farm (or driving through Iowa). Tolerable, if not particularly enjoyable.

And then I read an article about the complete lack of women's rest rooms. Men get to piss against buildings. Women get to hold it. Even workplaces, the factories, office buildings, and call centers where women work have very few toilets. One article described a textile factory that employed hundreds of women but had no restrooms. The women were expected to just refrain from pissing for the entire length of their shift. Unreal. People bitch in this country about being expected to just hold it until their coffee break or lunch, but can you imagine having to wait 8, 9, or 10 hours? Not surprisingly, this lack of places to pee is causing significant health problems for Indian women. It's also contributing to the rape crisis: over half the population of India still lives in housing that lacks indoor plumbing. The women have to leave their homes to relieve themselves and then are victimized when they try to use one of the local toilets or go out to piss or crap in the gutters once it's dark.

It is so bizarre. How can a country that has nuclear weapons also be so fucking primitive that there aren't enough toilets to go around? I can understand a lack of toilets in underdeveloped nations that are suffering from a lack of money or have been wracked by decades of civil unrest, like the Congo, but India? India is the home of a gazillion call centers and is also noted for exporting engineers and doctors to the rest of the world. Then again, maybe that explains why my primary care physician is now living here in Baraga County instead of back in her home country. She's not too thrilled with the long winters here, but at least there's never a problem finding a toilet.

No doubt as a tourist I would be carefully sheltered from the realities of life in India. For sure the hotel rooms would all have bathrooms, so a casual traveler might never really notice the lack of facilities elsewhere. Still, when the lottery winnings roll in, I think I'll plan to visit someplace like Iceland instead. If nothing else, it's cool enough there that if people are pissing in the streets the smell won't be as noticeable.

Monday, November 24, 2014

CDO in action

I recently discovered Google Docs, or, more accurately, I finally succumbed to the various entreaties from Google that I check it out. Coincidentally, my desktop computer has begun behaving erratically again. The original hard drive went senile about 18 months ago. It didn't cost much to replace it, but I did lose a fair number of files and photos I had stored on it. Nothing important, but still it was moderately annoying. Since then, I've been trying to remember to save photos to a flash drive or to stash them in various online albums, but hadn't really thought about documents much. After all, most of the writing I do is strictly personal -- letters to pen pals, notes to my sisters, the annual Xmas letter to enclose with cards. Nothing horrible was going to happen if it all vanished. Back in the days of pen and ink, it would all be ephemeral anyway.

And then we decided to become campground hosts. I was going to be away from the desktop for awhile, the S.O. had invested in a tablet that we planned to tote along in addition to his laptop, maybe, just maybe, Google's cloud wasn't such a bad idea after all. I could use the tablet to do my letter writing, then connect the laptop to a printer to get the hard copy to mail. Or I could go to a public library to use the computer there to access the cloud and then print out a hard copy.

As it turned out, I did all my letter writing at Montauk the old-fashioned way: pen and paper. The writer's bump on one finger actually started reforming -- does anyone else still have remnants of the callus left from doing a lot of writing by hand? I found myself remembering why I always liked to write things out in long hand first -- you have to go a little slower than when you type, so you're forced to think more about just what it is you plan to say. Still, Google Docs was still floating around in the back of my mind. After all, John Scalzi had sort of recommended it -- in a blog post a few years ago he mentioned that it was good for doing short pieces, although he wasn't too happy about its rather rudimentary formatting capabilities. Well, how much formatting does the typical personal letter need? Not a whole heck of a lot. So I started doing letters in Google Docs. I figured that way if I'm feeling particularly verbose (not an uncommon occurrence), I wouldn't have to worry about my computer deciding to eat a letter before I'd finished it.

Then I realized that Google Docs also lets you do spreadsheets. And that's where the CDO comes in. You know that Reading List I have over on the right hand side just above the Pulitzer  list? I'm now in the process of building a spread sheet that will do a better job of tracking what I've read than just doing a once a year printout on December 31. No more going to the library and not being able to remember if I've already read a book; no more grabbing something by one of my favorite authors off the shelf, getting it home, thinking, jeez, this sounds familiar, checking the printouts, and realizing I read it two years ago. Nope. I'm going to create a spreadsheet in Google Docs that goes back at least five years. Next time I have a question about whether or not I've read something, I'll be able to log on from a library computer and double check. And it's going to be so much better than the Reading List. The List just displays stuff in chronological order. Whatever's at the top of the list is what I'm reading now. The spreadsheet will be alphabetical by author, which make it super easy to search. At this point, two things are going through my head: 1. Why didn't I do this sooner? And, 2. I almost wish I had a smart phone so I'd be able to access the list when I'm in bookstores, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Adventures in bureaucracy: state level

I have occasionally noted that I am a member of the county historical society and volunteer at the museum the society operates. Back in 2013 I was elected treasurer of the organization. This means I get to deal with all the paperwork we receive from entities such as the United States Department of the Treasury (i.e., the IRS) and the State of Michigan.

Well, when I checked the mail yesterday the State's Treasury Department had dropped an annoying missive into the society's lap. The State of Michigan, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that all businesses (and that includes nonprofits) must register online with the division responsible for collecting Sales, Use, and Withholding taxes. This is fine with me. I think it's a great idea. Anything that in theory makes life simpler for everyone strikes me as good. If reporting can be reduced down to filling out an online form once a year and hitting the send key, it's a win.

So I cheerfully typed in the URL required to reach the registration site. That's when I discovered the State (or the moronic contractor they hired) had done something bizarre. To register your business you have to enter identifying information as an individual. You begin by creating a user ID that will consist of your last name, first initial, and 4 numerical digits of your choosing. Okay. We're the Baraga County Historical Society. Does that mean our name is SocietyB1234? And for the part that asks for first name, middle initial, and last name, are we Baraga C Society? Apparently not. The system won't take it. I spent a rather frustrating twenty minutes or so trying to come up with a work-around for filling in a form designed for humans only. A good chunk of that time was spent trying to find a way to contact the State to ask for help.

Well, good luck with that one, too, because there is no Contact or Help provided other than a link to an 800 number that on screen claims to have operators standing by 24/7 but instead lands you at the usual voice mail tree that does the oh-so-predictable infinite looping. Our tax dollars at work. I did find a Contact form for the Governor's office so filled that form out asking how a corporation would register as opposed to an individual business owner. After all, corporations may be people now but they still don't have people-type names.

I realized as I was doing this that I could have come up with a simple solution: I could have either filled the form out using my own name or I could have made something up. I resisted for several reasons. First, I have no desire to have my name permanently linked to the society or the museum. There's already too much mail arriving addressed to me or one of the other officers c/o the museum when it should be addressed to the organization itself instead of to a representative. The museum in theory is going to be around for many decades; the other members and I are just passing through. Second, if I created an alias for the museum, sooner or later some bell in the labyrinth of the state bureaucracy would ring, some desk monkey would rouse himself from his nap, mutter "This isn't right," and Explanations would be Demanded.

The thing that baffles me about the whole experience. . . well, it doesn't really baffle me because I know that the typical contractor tends to be both lazy and not particularly creative. . . is why didn't they design a fill-in form that did the obvious? You know, ask for the business name, then the name of a contact person or officer, and go from there? It's so bizarre. It's like whoever designed the form assumed every business in the state is a sole proprietorship. Very, very strange.

As for why we have to worry about this type of stuff when we're so small and make less money annually than some teenage babysitters rake in, as long as we're a recognized nonprofit corporation we do have to comply with rules for annual reporting. We may not have any paid employees at the moment and the receipts from the gift shop fall well below the threshold for nonprofits for paying sales taxes, but we still have to do the same paperwork as any other business. It's not that big a deal to do when we're putting zeroes in most of the spaces on the forms. And who knows? One of these days a tour bus could pull into the parking lot and disgorge a horde of shopaholic tourists who empty the gift shop to the point where the State gets lucky. I can dream.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Yet another reason to despise politicians

Listening to the news this morning I'm hearing quite a bit about the Keystone XL Pipeline project. This is a project that involves building a pipeline to transport Canadian crude oil extracted from the tar sands in northern Canada down through the United States to a refinery in Texas where the crude will be processed and then shipped to overseas markets. The oil industry and its paid hacks in Congress -- mostly Republicans but with a few Democrats, too -- have done a lot of posturing about what a boon this pipeline would be for the American economy. It would add jobs (a grand total of 35 to 40 permanent positions), it would help reduce the cost of gasoline, it's environmentally benign, . . . all the usual bullshit.

Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the project has been subject to review by the United States Department of State as well as to the other usual reviews pipeline projects have to undergo. It's been tied up for years, basically since the Bush administration departed. In fact, it's been tied up for so many years that the Canadian oil companies may be abandoning the idea -- there have been several news reports recently that pipelines are under construction and close to done that will transport the Canadian crude to a Canadian port city and the Keystone pipeline will be rendered unnecessary. My instincts tell me that's what President Obama's game plan has been: stall long enough that the Canadians come up with an alternative, which would get the Democrats off the hook. They would have avoided directly pissing off Big Oil and at the same time done enough of a balancing act to be able to keep telling the environmental activists, "see, we're tree huggers, too."

So why I am disgusted with politicians this morning? Or, more specifically, why I am disgusted with the Democratic party? Because the Democrats are so unbelievably short-sighted that some of them are pushing for approving a bill that authorizes construction of the Keystone pipeline in the bizarre hope that it passing such a bill in the Senate (it's already passed in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives) will help Senator Mary Landrieu's chances in Louisiana. Louisiana has a strange electoral system that has resulted in Landrieu being forced into a run-off election in December. The planned pipeline doesn't go into Louisiana -- as planned, it terminates in Port Arthur, Texas -- so why Landrieu or anyone else thinks it would be a game changer for her baffles me. Is it supposed to be proof she's willing to disagree with Obama? It's not going to work. Based on the current political climate in Louisiana, Landrieu doesn't have a prayer of winning, especially when she was bluntly (and refreshingly) honest about the influence of racism in voters' dislike of the President. Her only hope is to somehow practice Louisiana politics as usual and engage in a whole lot of backroom chicanery and fraud to hang on to her Senate seat. Nonetheless, in the bizarre and forlorn hope of being able to keep one Senate seat labeled D instead of R, the Democrats are contemplating fucking over both the country and the President.

And just what will they gain from this? Absolutely nothing. They'll still be the minority party in the Senate, they'll have made it even clearer what a bunch of spineless, unprincipled weasels they are, and they'll have weakened further the head of their own party. It's not going to gain them any points with the Republicans. Mitch McConnell et al. already know the Democrats are invertebrates; all supporting the Keystone pipeline will do is emphasize just how powerless the Democrats are. It's not going to help with bipartisanship. If anything, it just tells McConnell he's got a good shot at passing anything and everything the Republicans feel like proposing. There will be no compromises on anything, which is what McConnell made clear years ago was his operating philosophy. 

I really need to stop listening to the news. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Food fads and the gullible

I have written before about food fads, things that are promoted as being better than whatever it is we're used to eating and of course cost a whole lot more. I've found another one. Agave nectar.

Back when I still worked at the Centers for Disease Control, one of my colleagues began pushing agave nectar as a substitute for sugar. I'm not sure why. Supposedly because the agave nectar is sweeter than sugar, you'll use less of it. If the reason for using agave nectar is to cut back on calories, you'd better hope that to your taste buds it seems a whole lot sweeter because when you start comparing calories on a teaspoon to teaspoon basis sugar wins. Sugar has 16 calories in a teaspoon; agave nectar has 20. Anyway, at the time the agave nectar was being pushed by my colleague, I humored her, used it in my coffee, and thought to myself, "Okay. Not bad." So the next time I was at Publix I looked for agave nectar.

Remember the quinoa experience? Well, agave wasn't quite as much of a sticker shock eye opener, but at the time it struck me as fairly pricey for the amount the bottle contained. However, back then (this was about five years ago), agave was a recent arrival on supermarket shelves and Dr. Oz (who's apparently never met a food fad he didn't love) was pushing it on his show. He has since back peddled. For various reasons (market forces? economy of scale?) the price has dropped; it is now cheaper ounce for ounce than honey. It is, of course, still a lot more expensive than cane sugar.

Like the quinoa, the agave nectar was a gift. I have a friend who works at a summer camp that caters to rich kids from Chicago; every year when the camp shuts down at the end of the season the staff have to completely empty the kitchen. Anything that is perishable, might attract varmints (e.g., raccoons), or would be ruined by freezing is removed. Some of it goes to area food pantries and some goes home with the maintenance guys who in turn pass some on to friends and family. Last year I was the recipient of several boxes of quinoa, probably because I actually knew what the stuff was (or was the only one who was willing to try it). This year it was a bottle of agave nectar.*

Unlike the quinoa, the agave nectar is actually edible. It's nicely innocuous. When I dump it in my coffee or tea, I can't tell the difference between using it and using ordinary sugar. Am I using less in terms of total amounts than I would if it was the usual teaspoon of sugar? Who knows. It's hard to do a side by side comparison when agave is a liquid and sugar is a solid. Is there an advantage to using agave instead of sugar? I'm not sure. I've heard some people tout it as being more "natural," but from what I've read the process most commonly used for extracting it from the agave plant is as highly industrialized as the process involved in making high fructose corn syrup. There's a lot more involved than just crushing the plant and boiling the resulting sap. There is a type of traditional agave nectar that comes much closer to the type of processing used for traditional cane syrup, but that's not the agave nectar you're going to find on the shelves at a typical Kroger.

In any case, whether traditionally produced or cranked out in an industrial refinery, the sugars in agave are primarily fructose, which, as other writers have pointed out, puts agave a whole lot closer to being just another form of high fructose corn syrup than it does to anything that's actually good for you. High fructose corn syrup has gotten a bad reputation for a reason: research has shown that the human body does process fructose differently than it does sucrose. High amounts of fructose in a person's diet can contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome, i.e., that lethal combination of weight gain and type II diabetes. So why on earth would anyone think agave nectar would be a healthy alternative to ordinary sugar?

I have heard that hard core vegans like agave nectar because it doesn't involve animals in any way, shape, or form. They substitute it for honey because they apparently view honey as off limits because it's bee vomit and therefore an animal product. Well, cane sugar, beet sugar, maple syrup, and Karo syrup have always been 100% non-animal products, so why agave would suddenly look more appealing than any of the non-fructose loaded alternatives baffles me. It has to be yet another triumph of marketing cancelling out common sense.

Of maybe it's just that magic "organic" seal on the bottles. Who knows. It's a mystery.

*I get other stuff, too, but it's not as much fun to write about a giant unopened bag of Kellogg's Froot Loops or the institutional-size jug of stir fry sauce. Unlike the quinoa, the Froot loops did not end up in a bird feeder.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Adventures in blogging

A few months ago I was invited to become a contributor to a blog that invites a variety of perspectives, political and otherwise. I had qualms, but decided to give it a shot. I still have qualms.

When I blog here in my little self-created corner of the universe, I'm doodling in a space with an established structure. It's comfortable. I can take off my metaphorical stays, relax, and cheerfully free associate. Over in the new space, however, it's still feeling like the lacing is being pulled tighter. There's too much of a sense of being constrained. I'm not sure why. Comments are civil, although it's pretty clear a number of regular commenters on that site have their responses set on auto pilot. They have their pet theories and, no surprise, manage to work those pet theories into every comment they leave regardless of the supposed topic of the original post. That's not really a problem, though, because just about the only comments I ever bother to read seriously are the ones when I see while doing comment moderation on this blog.

Maybe it's the quota system -- I'm supposed to do two posts a month in order to remain an active author. Okay, so two posts isn't very many, but I never was real keen on production quotas in general. Having worked at a number of shit jobs that had production quotas, I know from sad experience that if everyone always meets the quota, sooner or later the quota goes up. This month it's two posts. . . if everyone does their two posts, pretty soon the blog administrator will start demanding three. . . and so it goes. Pretty soon I'll be typing my fingers to the bone and for what? No reward other than the remote possibility half a dozen people will read my deathless prose. That isn't much of an incentive.

Or perhaps the truth is even simpler. I keep forgetting the bloody password for the other blog. It's got multiple layers of security (the administrator is a bit of a zealot when it comes to protecting the space) and times a person out after a certain number of minutes. I get a few sentences done, get timed out, have to log back in and, despite having instructed the computer to "remember me," end up having to rummage around on my rat's nest of a desk looking for the odd scrap of paper with the most recent iteration of the password on it. By the time I find it, my fragile train of thought has fallen off a trestle, and I find myself thinking about cranes lifting boxcars out of rivers instead of whatever it was I thought I was saying to begin with.

In short, it's really hard to develop much enthusiasm for contributing to a blog when the contributions feel way too much like work. If I'm not getting paid to do something, then that something should be fun. When it stops being fun, it's time to walk away.