Thursday, July 31, 2014

What's wrong with normal?

I was listening to On Point on NPR yesterday and was treated (if you can call it that) to the bloviations of Dinesh D'Sousa on the subject of American exceptionalism. Mr. D'Sousa is a well-known conservative personality who I decided to start ignoring a few years ago -- he was too obviously playing to the rubes by indulging in hyperbole that made for good sound bites but lacked any meaningful content. In any case, his most recent endeavor is a documentary called "America: Imagine the World Without Her."

Odds are that I'll never see the movie -- I don't see many documentaries to begin with, and, given what I know about D'Souza's intellectual laziness, his films are unlikely to make the short list of the ones I do see -- but it sounds like his premise involves a lot of flag-waving and we're so special the whole world wants to be us nonsense. In other words, typical American jingoism and tautological reasoning, i.e., we're the best and the brightest and have never done anything to be ashamed of because we are the best and the brightest and have never done anything to be ashamed of. (I guess D'Souza's reading of American history glossed right over the bundles of smallpox-infected blankets handed out by Indian agents, Jim Crow laws, the Japanese internment camps, the Tuskegee experiments, and other skeletons in our collective closet. Every country, just like every person, has something in its past that inspires a wince and retrospective regret.)

In any case, I happened to catch D'Souza's dog and pony show while I've been reading a remarkably depressing book called Backfire. Backfire, which was published in 1984, makes the case that the reason we screwed up so badly in Vietnam is because too many people in this country, from the President on down to the ordinary person in the street, have internalized the myth of American exceptionalism. We are the shining city on the hill, the ideal, the model of a country that everyone else wants to emulate. And because we are that shining city, we're obligated to try to fix other countries' problems. We are supposed to stand as a bulwark against Evil with a capital E. In the 1960's we were standing strong against Communism. Because we are that shining city, we can do no wrong. We're not allowed to be like other countries; we have apparently become (at least in the minds of way too many people) the only thing that stands between Ultimate Evil and all that is good and true in the world. It is an extremely Manichean view of the world with, of course, the United States being on the side of Light. The fact that a big chunk of the world tends to view the U.S. as having gone over to the Dark side of the force quite a few administrations ago is, of course, irrelevant to D'Souza and his ilk -- after all, who really cares what the less enlightened peoples think? We know what's best for them; they need to just shut up and let us tell them what to do.

The book is remarkably depressing because, among other things, the more I read the more I had a "Christ on a crutch we haven't learned a damn thing!" response. The examples the author provided of the numerous ways we blew it in Vietnam could have been researched and written last year about the debacle in Iraq or the never ending headache that is Afghanistan. Backfire describes the American military's love affair with technology, its over-reliance on heavy bombing, napalm, defoliants, and other technical "solutions" to a military problem while choosing to ignore the fact that when you're fighting an insurgency all those killing-at-a-distance solutions do is create more insurgents. Fast forward 50 years to Afghanistan, Yemen, and other locations in the Arab world: every drone strike is a recruiting wet dream for the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda. Does that register at all with the Pentagon or the idiots in the White House? No.

But that's a digression. Back to D'Souza. After doing a lot of talking that effectively demonstrated an appalling lack of a knowledge of American history, he came out with a line that managed to startle even me. You know what his big fear is? That the United States will turn into a "normal" country, one that doesn't feel the need to serve as the world's policeman. That we'll become diminished by allowing President Obama to lure us into to becoming like . . . brace yourself; this is a frightening prospect. . . Canada.

You got it. Canada. The fate worse than death that D'Souza fears the evil Kenyan socialist in the White House is leading us into is normalcy, becoming like Canada, a country that doesn't feel obligated to meddle in other countries' affairs. Canada, a country with a collective reputation for being "nice." Canada, home of Tim Horton's coffee shops, hockey, and decent beer.

But Canada as the epitome of what we shouldn't be? Words fail me.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

We have water!

Well, sort of. We have a hole in the ground with water in it. The pump has yet to be installed.

The hole in the ground with the water in it is under the white bucket behind the drill rig. The well driller will be back later today to pick up his equipment. I'm not sure just when they'll start the pump installation. The State of Michigan requires that the water from any new well be tested by the local health department before it can be connected to a household plumbing system. When they do install the submersible pump, they'll trench over to the old pump house (concrete block building with the blue tarp on it), install the pressure tank there, and complete various other tasks that should result fairly soon in the magical sound of a toilet being flushed.

It's a sound we haven't heard for awhile; our existing well decided to stop producing earlier this summer. The treks to the outhouse, the necessary, the little brown shack out back, haven't been particularly onerous -- it is July, the days are long, there is no snow on the ground-- although serving as a buffet for mosquitoes isn't my favorite way to start a day. July, will, however, not last indefinitely. Hence, the new well.

Our problem, unlike those poor saps in the desert southwest or California suffering from drought and dropping water tables, was not a lack of water under the sod. Our problem was too much fine sand and clay. Our old well is a driven point; the point kept getting clogged with sand, clay, biofilms (there's a lot of iron in the local water; iron attracts bacteria that form scale), whatever. The S.O. would manage to clear the point, the well would produce copious amounts of water for a while -- days, weeks, months -- and then the gusher would slow down. We'd go from having gallon after gallon pouring out of the faucet to measuring the flow in quarts and then cups before the water pressure dropped to nil. So then the S.O. would clear the point again, using techniques ranging from pulling it completely to the classic firing of a .22 into the pipe. That last one yielded good results that lasted about two days. That's also the one that made me decide it was time to call the well driller. When you're desperate enough to try to kill your well, it's time to bring in the professionals.
We live in a part of the U.P. that is notorious for well drillers having to pound through several hundred feet of granite to find water. We didn't think that was going to happen here -- despite being close to the highest point in Michigan, we're sitting on a pile of glacial till -- and we were right. We were reasonably confident they'd manage to hit legal water (more than 25 feet down) without having to go through any real rock. Our optimism was warranted: end result is a well 32 feet deep with 26 feet of casing and 6 feet of stainless steel sand screen.

I'm not sure exactly how long we'll have to wait for the pump. Because there's paperwork involved, it could be within a day or two; it could be a couple of weeks. But I can live with that. As long as there isn't frost on the outhouse seat, I can cope with the early morning hike to the privy.

A small digression: a few days ago there was a quiz bouncing around on Facebook that asked if a person could handle living in the Victorian era. A number of people commented that the one thing they couldn't deal with was the idea of using an outhouse. I had two thoughts at the time. One was "Welcome to my world." The other was if I was unlucky enough to live in the 19th century, I'd worry a heck of a lot more about the availability of clean drinking water and the lack of antibiotics than I would about not being able to piss into porcelain.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Amusing stuff seen on Facebook

Nope. Not cute memes with pithy sayings superimposed over images of cats in awkward positions. What's amusing me this morning is the latest (at least to me) offering in right-wing paranoia. The wingnuts really do waste an awful lot of energy yelling at clouds.

Today's specific example? A video of a freight train hauling "unmarked" military equipment "west." And this is proof of what exactly? In the right wing mind, it's probably more evidence of FEMA death camps being built in Nebraska cornfields or the Nevada desert. To a saner person, of course, it's just a freight train, a much cheaper method of shipping equipment than by truck, and thus evidence that someone in the Department of Defense actually does think about saving some money occasionally (and if they ever figure out who that person is, he or she will probably get fired).

In any case, once again I turned to the magic that is Google. It took me about a nanosecond to learn that the viral video was shot in California and that it was a perfectly mundane, run of the mill freight operation. The military ships equipment by rail all the time. New equipment gets shipped that way by the manufacturer; equipment currently being used will be shuffled from one Army post to another by rail; the National Guard will ship its equipment from armories to training locations via rail. No nefarious plots, no grand conspiracies, just business as usual. When I mentioned the freight train to the S.O., he got it immediately -- it's the logical way to haul a tank anywhere. A Bradley Fighting Vehicle is 12 feet wide and weighs quite a few tons. Hauling one by truck would require a specialized trailer (one with more axles than normal as well as a wider than usual trailer bed), possibly a specialized truck to pull that trailer, and two escort vehicles with the usual warning lights and signs regarding over-sized loads. Now multiply that by a more than a couple tanks and you can see why the military would prefer to travel by rail. No conspiracies; just common sense.

The really sad part is that the video my conservative friend shared this morning is over two years old. More proof, I guess, that even the lamest of conspiracy theories will never die.

It must be remarkably exhausting to exist over on the right wing end of the political spectrum. It's got to be tiring as hell to live your life in constant fear of stuff that's never going to happen or freaking out over really old news. If they'd spend even one-tenth as much time fretting about real issues -- crumbling infrastructure, for example -- the country would be a better place.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Vision problem solved

We've been working on enhancing the Guppy, tweaking it to make more comfortable for when we hit the road for a prolonged period of time. Yesterday the S.O. fixed my vision problem.
I can now see into the cabinets instead of just groping blindly and hoping I can find what I want by feel.

While he was playing around with scraps of wood, he also came up with this, a holder to keep stacked plates from sliding when the Guppy is moving.
And, yes, I plan to keep right on using real dishes regardless of where we are and what we're living in. When it's just the two of us, washing actual dishes is not that big a deal. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Have you heard of this thing called Google?

Back when I was teaching, one of the predictable irritations each semester was the student who wanted the instructor to do all the work. You know, the instructor presents an essay assignment -- "Write a 1,000 word paper on a topic relating to X" -- and the student doesn't just want the instructor to hand over a precise, narrowly defined topic on a silver platter (complete with thesis statement and a detailed outline) he or she also expects the instructor to hold their hand every step of the way and basically write the paper for them. I always kind of wondered what happened to those people once they got out in the real world.

Now I know. They write to historical societies asking us to do research for them that they could just as easily do themselves with a couple of mouse clicks. Apparently there are still members of the general population that have never heard of this thing called Google. I'm one of the people who follows up on requests the county historical society gets from folks doing genealogy or other research relating to Baraga County. I've dealt with two in the past couple of weeks that had me wishing for the proverbial 2 x 4 with which to get the mule's attention.

One actually isn't too bad. The request came in the form of a hand-written letter. It's quite possible the person asking for research assistance is one of those rare individuals (and they do still exist, although they're becoming as rare as unicorns) who either doesn't own a computer or is sufficiently computer illiterate that even running a simple, preliminary search is something they don't know how to do. In any event, it turned out that although Google would have answered a couple of quick questions, it would not have yielded all the information the person wanted. For them, Google would have been a start, but they probably would have written to us anyway to track down things like photocopies of death certificates and marriage licenses.

The other request, however, really did remind me of the snot-nosed freshmen who used to annoy me back in my glory days as an academic. The person did a lengthy email laying out in excruciating detail what they hoped to find. After multiple paragraphs of verbiage, the bottom line was, in essence, a simple yes or no question: did a certain person hold a specific title at a certain point in time. WTF? Two seconds on the Internet and I had the answer. If you can find an answer using Google, why waste anyone else's time? And why on earth do multiple paragraphs of build-up to get to the question?

So how did I respond to the lengthy email with its stupid question? Did I answer it? Well, no. I was in a snarky mood. I reminded the person that the museum's website states clearly that we charge for research assistance. And, not only do we charge, we want money in advance before we do anything. Will the person send us $25 to get an answer that could be obtained for free with a 3 word search phrase and a mouse click or two? I don't know, but I'm kind of hoping they do. You can't cure stupid, but you can make it pay.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

More adventures in cataloging

Pageant banner on the wall behind Chief Welsh's headdress.
Thirty-three pageant banners. Count 'em. Thirty-three. I promise the intern that once we start opening boxes from up in the attic we'll find "good stuff." What do we find? Thirty-three 1969 Baraga County Historical Pageant banners and a stash of really nasty and obviously really cheap black wigs. Lots and lots of flies and beetles had chosen to crawl into that stash of wigs to die.

Oh, and one priest's collar that was probably part of a costume from that pageant. Is it the one surviving "costume" from that pageant? Who knows. We have a lot of boxes left to go.

The wigs, incidentally, got classified as trash pretty fast. There's nothing quite like a zillion dead lady bugs to convince a person something isn't worth dealing with. The Intern and I could shake the bug cadavers out of the banners; we weren't going to try picking them out of fake human hair.

The big mystery for me, though, is why this stuff was right up in front in the attic. I would have expected them to be buried in the back. The position of the boxes suggest they were among the last things to get stashed up there -- so where did they come from? The historical society sponsored the pageant 45 years ago. The pageant material obviously went into storage somewhere, but not at the museum. The museum building is barely 22 years old; construction began in 1992 and it opened to the public in 1993. Had the pageant material been stashed with other historical society material at the Visitor Information building in L'Anse back in 1993, one assumes that any boxes or crates stored in closets and attics would have gotten moved at the same time as the exhibits. Apparently that didn't happen. Either that, or the pageant material was never at the visitor center. So where was it? Just who cleaned out an attic or a garage sometime in the past 20 years and found those boxes?

It's a mystery. Like so many other things relating to the history of the museum, I'll probably never know. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that these 33 banners are it, that no more are lurking in other boxes. It's nice to have a few spares stashed just in case the one on display in the museum develops dry rot, but thirty three is a bit of overkill. (Note: exhibit area no longer looks exactly like what's shown in the photo, but the banner hasn't moved.)

And, for what it's worth, this was one set of objects that went into PastPerfect under just one object number. There was no way I felt like individually cataloging each banner. They're all in the same container. If I could batch list headstones when I inventoried them for the Park Service, it must be okay to group objects now at a small local museum, especially when they're basically identical except for where the fold marks fall on the individual banners.

Now all I have to do is convince the intern that the next set of boxes will be more fun.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dumb and growing dumber

I have been thinking recently about the general dumbing down of American society. An acquaintance, a blog pal, a virtual friend -- I'm never quite sure just how to categorize people whom I know only through the Internet -- suggested that social media (e.g., Twitter) are responsible for our diminishing ability to engage in rational discourse or nuanced discussions. I disagree. I think the dumbing down, if that's what one wants to call it, has been going on for a long, long time.

As my two regular readers know, I volunteer at a local museum. Over the past few months I've been spending a fair amount of time working on cataloging various documents and artifacts. The museum didn't have a formal inventory system in place until last year so there's a huge backlog of material to wade through. That backlog includes personal documents (e.g., letters) and periodicals (e.g., 100-year-old Ladies' Home Journals). I think it's fairly clear the attention span of the typical American 100 years ago was a little longer than the attention span of today's multi-tasker with his or her smart phone in hand.

Using the example of the ladies' magazines, back in 1910 a typical article in Ladies' Home Journal would run multiple pages and be printed in a fairly small font on tabloid size pages. There might be one illustration, often just a drawing rather than a photograph. The magazine enjoyed a wide circulation nation-wide and its readership quite obviously could read. As of this spring, Ladies' Home Journal exists only online (the print edition is dead). Of the surviving hard copy periodicals, a typical women's magazine has articles (and I use the word loosely) that are one page long, printed in a large font with lots of white space, and most of the pages are taken up with graphics instead of text. The readership has gone from reading at a collegiate level to perhaps 4th grade. It also apparently has the attention span of a gnat if the publishers believe more than two hundred words of text is too much. And lest anyone think that I'm picking on women, other publications are just as thin. Compare a Smithsonian Magazine or a National Geographic published this year with one that came out a few decades ago. You don't even have to go back a full century. Not long ago I found a stash of Smithsonians from the 1990s. They're not even 20 years old, but have long, interesting articles, pieces that engage the reader and make you want to keep turning the pages. They're not as in-depth or as lengthy as the articles from a few decades earlier, but they're still weightier than what we find today. Pick up a copy of the current issue of Smithsonian and what will you find? Lots of one-page pieces that tend to make Twitter look good.

If you pay any attention to the people in the publishing industry -- newspapers, magazines, whatever -- they have a tendency to blame social media. One problem with that line of reasoning: the trend started long before Al Gore had a chance to invent the Internet. Back in 1985 Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death dropped a lot of blame on television: society was beginning to view everything more and more in terms of how entertaining it was. Candidates weren't getting elected to office based on their ideas but instead on how they came across on tv. We'd become a shallow people interested only in the most superficial images of politicians and political ideas. Okay, so we can't blame Al Gore and the Internet. Instead, we'll blame Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworkyin for inventing television.

Except, of course, if I'm going to use content analysis of various texts as a guide, the dumbing down started before television became ubiquitous in American culture. The periodicals of the 1940s are much less dense and have become more visual than the periodicals at the beginning of the 20th century. Can we blame radio? Too may episodes of "Little Orphan Annie" or "The Lone Ranger" and our brains collectively began to rot? Or how about environmental factors? I watched an episode of "Cosmos" recently about lead poisoning -- the lead that used to be added to gasoline to improve engine performance -- and if I want to go searching for correlations, that's a good one. Of course, I could also find correlations, spurious or otherwise, with a lot of other things: the development of an electrical grid, the invention of processed foods like Velveeta and Miracle Whip, or the widespread popularity of Slush Puppies at 7-11. It's a mystery.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bring on the torches and pitchforks?

I'm trying to think of what would be the equivalent today in the U.S. of storming the Bastille. Granted, even back in 1789 in France it was primarily a symbolic gesture -- there were only 7 political prisoners in the prison at the time -- but even so. . . just where we would go if we wanted to do the equivalent today? Storm the prison where Leonard Peltier is held, whichever one that might be? Try to tear down the headquarters of the National Security Administration (they do seem to be spying on everyone)? Attack the White House? Riot at the Capitol? Is there any one place in this country that would be sufficiently symbolic to merit having a mob armed with the proverbial torches and pitchforks attack it? Even the most hated of government agencies (e.g., the Internal Revenue Service) are sufficiently amorphous that no one building really seems to capture the flavor necessary for a good symbolic act. Granted, the occasional lone nut will plot an attack on a federal building, but they don't seem to have much popular support. If they did, they wouldn't qualify as the occasional lone nut; they'd be leading a crowd of like-minded persons.

In any case, nothing is likely to be stormed by anyone any time soon. With a few exceptions, Americans are too apathetic to be outraged by much of anything. If they weren't, Occupy Wall Street would still be protesting and there'd be a lot more Moral Mondays happening around the country.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The migrant life draws closer

We now have a tow dolly to drag behind the RV. One of the difficulties in planning for an itinerant life style, at least one that may include stays of several weeks or months at a campground, is figuring out how you're going to do stuff like shop for groceries. Most campgrounds are not located within walking (or even easy biking) distance of a Publix. This is one reason you see a lot of RVs with cars in tow. If you're going to be parked somewhere for more than a couple days, it's a lot easier to run to the supermarket using a car than it is to go through the hassle of moving a motorhome.

We'd been looking for a used tow dolly since last fall. We'd figured out pretty quickly that a brand-new one was out of the question. As I have noted before, the S.O. and I are frugal people. More so the S.O. than myself -- I tend to see myself as relatively frugal while he's one cheap son of a bitch -- but both of us flinch in psychic pain at the thought of paying full price for anything if we can avoid it. Which means we've been spending a fair amount of time perusing Craigslist. Every so often a tow dolly in our price range (really, really cheap) would come up, but the timing was off or it was being sold by someone who lived just a little too far away. The U.P. Craigslist covers a fairly large territory; I wouldn't have been too thrilled with having to drive 280 miles to Drummond Island just to save a few bucks on anything.

I was, however, willing to drive 190 miles to Hayward, Wisconsin, yesterday. Hayward is less than 4 hours driving time away and has the added advantages of being home to both giant fiberglass fish and the original Famous Dave's. Neither of which we actually saw (although we did drive by the Grand Pines Resort on County B), but that's irrelevant. We came home with a tow dolly. Open road, here we come.

A side note: as part of the expedition to buy the tow dolly, we drove past the LCO casino operated by the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa. The parking lot was full. It was early afternoon on a gorgeous July day -- and people would rather be inside gambling than outside enjoying our much too brief northwoods summer. People are strange.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Story telling: ghost trains of Baraga County?

The local state park reached out to the museum recently with a request for a speaker for their Friday evening program series. Our original intention was to say No, that none of us were really up to it, but somehow, when I stopped by the park to tell them that in person, it turned into a Yes. I really need to learn how to say No more with conviction.

In any case, I looked over the topics other people were scheduled to cover and decided that the history of railroads in Baraga County would be a good one. There is another historian speaking this summer, but she's from the sawmill museum in Alberta so odds are her topic is going to be Henry Ford and logging. Logging is normally my topic, but railroads will do, especially when I can so easily slide over the line from straight forward history to speculating about paranormal phenomena, ghost trains, and mysterious noises in the night. The CN railroad tracks run right behind the park, although there's rarely any traffic on them (they dead end about a mile farther north in the Baraga Industrial Park), so it makes perfect sense to talk about railroading. As for ghost stories, isn't that what every kid wants to hear when camping?

There have been some spectacular derailments -- a number of trains had problems with the long grade down to L'Anse. For a railroad, the grade is steep, it's continuous for about 7 miles, and it ends with a sharp curve just before the Falls River. There have been multiple derailments on or close to that curve. In one case, the derailed train smashed into the L'Anse depot. In another incident, there were multiple fatalities. There's a lot of potential drama without having to indulge in any embellishments.

On the other hand, speculating about ghostly train whistles at midnight does sound a tad more interesting than simply telling people that it used to be possible to take a passenger train all the way to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Having done straight forward history for so long, it is really tempting to go wandering down the supernatural path for a change. Michigan Tech students managed (or have almost managed) to eliminate the ghost stories explaining the Paulding Light; maybe it's time for a dead fireman to start haunting L'Anse. I've got over a month to put the talk together -- it'll be interesting to see just how much embroidery I do when the time comes.