Saturday, February 28, 2015

Obligatory Caturday post

Cleo doing what she does best -- nap -- while using my tossut as a pillow. 

Still a learning experience

View from our campsite yesterday. The first come, first served spots along
the river are filling quickly despite the cold. weather. And, yes, there are
some guys who are hardy (or drunk) enough to indulge in tent camping. 
Every time we do something with the Guppy, we discover something else it would have been nice to have but we don't. Sometimes it's been fairly minor stuff -- a bottle opener, for example, or a decent-sized mixing bowl -- and sometimes it's definitely more important. Like a carbon monoxide detector. The Guppy has a smoke alarm but no carbon monoxide detector.

This was a serious oversight on our part. It doesn't make much difference when you're camping in warm weather and really don't care about heat, but when the temperature outside is in single digits? It would be kind of nice then to be able to run the furnace at night without worrying about waking up dead. We run the furnace during the day, get things reasonably toasty in here, and then it's time to retire for the night. The last thing we do before turning off the bedroom light is shut off the furnace -- and turning it on is the first thing we do when we crawl out of bed in the morning. I may have mentioned before that the Guppy tends to leak heat rather rapidly. Got up this morning and the bedroom thermometer read a balmy 35.9 degrees.

When I was in the fee booth yesterday and we were all chatting about the cold weather, I got asked how we were doing here in the Guppy. So I mentioned our carbon monoxide paranoia. The park superintendent suggested we invest in an electric blanket. Not a bad idea, I agreed, but the way things go, as soon as we spend the money on one the weather will turn warm. Exactly, was the response. Go buy one and make Spring happen.

It may get chilly in the Guppy, but it's got to be downright freezing in this
pop-up. The giant woodpile won't help much. They must be planning one
heck of a campfire to celebrate Opening Day.
I have actually thought about getting an electric blanket -- it would be nice when we're camping at places that do have electric service -- but neither the S.O. nor I are too keen on electric blankets since the time he almost burnt his house down. Back in his bachelor days, he had an electric blanket. He left for work one day not realizing he'd forgotten to turn the blanket off when he got up. It was wadded up on the bed, and by the time he got home it was starting to smolder. There were definite scorch marks. That was the last time there was an electric blanket in use any place he lived.

In any case, carbon monoxide detector is now on the shopping list. We'll be heading into Springfield on one of our days off next week and will pick one up then. Of course, by then the temperatures are supposed to have climbed back out of the Arctic and we won't need the furnace much anymore. The weather forecast for today actually has highs predicted in the 30s (above freezing), and by Tuesday it could be pushing 60. Still, a carbon monoxide detector is something we should have thought about right after we bought the Guppy, not almost 18 months later.

The view from the other end of Loop 2. If you enlarge the photo, the Guppy
is in the extreme background in line with a picnic table to the right of
the 5th wheel in the leftof the photo. 
In other news, the park is filling up despite the cold and the snow. Some of the regulars have been coming here for opening day since they were kids. One fellow told me yesterday he'd been here for every opening day since he was 16 -- and he qualifies for the senior discount now. I wonder if he saves his tags? Apparently there are some bragging rights involved in being able to have an extremely low number on the daily tag for opening day. The primo tag, of course, is number 1. We plan to do some fishing ourselves this month, but won't be part of the mob fighting for river bank space on Sunday. Things will thin out considerably during the week so we'll do our fishing when the pressure on the fish slacks off a little.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Do cats go senile?

I'm up at an unpleasantly early hour today. It wasn't my idea. Once again Cleo's howling woke me up. During the past year or so the cat has developed an annoying odd habit of, as they say, singing the song of her people at odd times and for no apparent reason. There are times when if the cat wasn't almost 15 years old and spayed you'd swear she was in heat. I've discussed the howling with her veterinarian several times and there is no detectable physical reason for it. Other than being fat and diabetic, she's a healthy cat.

So is she slipping into the feline version of senile dementia? Do cats get Alzheimer's? Dr. Google, D.V.M., reports that yes, cats can indeed exhibit the same brain abnormalities associated with Alzheimer's in other mammals. They can also exhibit symptoms of something called "feline cognitive dysfunction," which appears to be another way of saying senility. Senility as a label seems to have slipped out of fashion -- no doubt it's evolved into a term that is now seen as "ageist" in the same way mentally retarded slid from being a common descriptor into an insult -- but senility would seem to cover some of Cleo's more annoying recent behavior.

One of the signs of feline cognitive dysfunction, incidentally, is the cat "sleeps more." How could it be possible for any cat to "sleep more"?! As far as I can tell after many years of living with cats, a typical cat's day consists of waking up just long enough to switch napping locations, although they do toss in an occasional brief break to eat or use the litter box. How is it possible for any beast to sleep more than the 23+ hours a day a typical cat already spends dozing?

Of course, the cat always has been neurotic and prone to anti-social behavior. I wound up with her when she was still a pretty young kitten. The older daughter had been given the kitten but realized she couldn't keep her after Cleo decided a Packer hat belonging to a friend would make a great litter box. The Packer hat was actually the last straw; prior to that, Cleo had left her mark on several other items belonging to the friend. So I agreed to keep Cleo for a week or two while Zu looked for another home for her. That was back in 2000. It appears I'm stuck with the cat.

One of the other symptoms of cognitive dysfunction associated with aging in cats is that problems with separation anxiety increase. Despite their reputation for aloofness, cats apparently are actually rather fond of the hand that feeds them and don't handle being separated from familiar people or places very well. Maybe we've just been traveling a little too much -- it's taking Cleo longer to relax and adapt to changes than it used to. If that's the case, I'm thinking the S.O. and I may need to learn to sleep with ear plugs because we're not going to be staying in one place for more than a few months at a time in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Listening to C-SPAN

I used to have a serious C-SPAN addiction. I'd listen to "Washington Journal" at work, and I'd listen on the weekends, at least until the stupid started running too deep or they trotted out a guest "expert" who was enough of a professional liar that I couldn't stomach listening any longer. I haven't listened for several years, though. I kind of lost interest after we moved back to the tundra and I retired. Streaming it helped keep me awake at work; that motivation vanished once I stopped copy editing articles about tapeworms in sushi.

Now we're in Missouri spending a few days at the Younger Daughter's place before heading over to Montauk State Park for our month of campground hosting. And, to invoke the usual cliche, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The topic du jour is the debate over funding the Department of Homeland Security. As usual, the Republicans are having hissy fits over nonsense. The more right-wing, rabid Obama haters in the Congress are busy trying to stir up their base (and, going by the phone calls coming in from the tinfoil hat types, succeeding) by ranting about Obama and "amnesty." WTF? Obama's supposed tyrannical executive order isn't amnesty. Doesn't anyone know how to read anymore? An amnesty would be a general pardon, you're off the hook for whatever you might have done now and forever. It's what the Reagan administration did back in the 1980s, a sweeping Get Out of Jail Free card for every undocumented immigrant who met certain criteria.

What Obama tried to do is create a breathing space, a brief moratorium, a 3-year stay of execution. He instructed federal prosecutors to exercise discretion and to focus on certain classes of undocumented aliens more than others. He didn't say ignore those people forever; he said to go after the worst elements among illegal immigrants first. You know, prioritize deporting drug dealers before jerking law-abiding high school students out of classes. This is what Immigration and Customs Enforcement should have been doing all along -- trying to track down and deport the persons who present the most risk to our society -- but, hey, it's a whole lot easier to find people whose only crimes are status offenses. One of the reasons the Obama administration has set a record for number of deportations is that ICE has been aggressive in going after what might be termed the low hanging fruit, the people who are relatively easy to find, e.g., students. Someone who's dealing drugs or on the run for shooting someone is going to be a whole lot harder to find than some kid who's going to school everyday while worrying about whether or not he or she can get into college.

In any case, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the Obama-haters, prosecutorial discretion is not amnesty. At best (and worst) it's simply an invitation to young people who are currently caught in a legal limbo to step out of the shadows, do some of ICE's work for the agency, and identify themselves. To date, none of them have because the program has yet to be implemented.

Which is another thing that kills me when it comes to being amused by stupidity in action. Going by the language various callers are using, you'd think a gazillion undocumented aliens have already been tapped with a magic wand labeled Amnesty. Pshaw. The program was supposed to start this month. It's currently on hold. Not one person has actually been affected by it yet. And, considering the potential downsides of signing up for the program, I tend to believe the number of applicants for it (if and when the program is ever implemented) will be remarkably low. After all, back in the 1980s when actual amnesty was on the line, there were still large numbers of undocumented aliens who chose to remain undocumented. The gains from applying for legal status back then were a lot higher -- permanent resident alien status -- then they are now, i.e., a lifetime versus "temporarily."

I've mentioned before that if I were one of those "illegals," I'd stay in the shadows. Right now ICE knows potentially millions of these people exist but it doesn't know specifically who or where they are. Step forward, apply for the program, and you've just saved ICE a whole lot of work in tracking you down when the temporary moratorium on deporting that particular class of undocumented immigrant ends.

But can any of the more extreme right-wingers figure that out? Nope. If it was President Obama's idea, then it automatically must be bad, a grab for power, another example of the evil socialist dictator's imperial ambitions. The stupid, it burns.

Friday, February 20, 2015

No more photo ops

I'm going to miss seeing this machine in our driveway.
We had enough snow build up that the grader operator decided it was worth coming in here the other day. It was perfect timing on his part -- we hadn't dug the Guppy out of the snowbank yet so it was out of the way, and now the weather forecast is such that there probably won't be a reason for him to come in here again until sometime next week. And by then we'll be gone in search of Spring. 
The grader turning around by the barn. 
In the photo above, the Guppy is kind of hiding behind the grader, still securely tucked into the snow. In the photo below, the Guppy has (obviously) moved.
I thought taking that tarp off would be a real pain, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy. The S.O. had used old Chevy hubcaps to cover the plumbing vents on the roof; because they were rounded, there was nothing for the tarp to get hung up on once we started pulling it off. The worst part was getting hit with solidified chunks of snow that tended to slide right down the tarp and up my jacket sleeves.
Pictured above is the space the Guppy emerged from. The tow dolly had been parked right behind it, truly buried in the snow close to the storage shed. The S.O. wound up doing a fair amount of shoveling to get to the point where he'd be able to drag the dolly out with his POS Dodge plow truck once the Guppy was out of the way. 
With the Guppy out of the way, the Dodge is now parked in that space for the foreseeable future. Unless something dramatic changes in the next 24 hours, the S.O. will not be plowing any snow again until, oh, maybe October. November if we're lucky. 
The Guppy is now positioned for loading, the tow dolly is directly behind it although not yet attached. 
The above is my last grader photo for this year and probably forever, at least on our driveway. As of November 1, 2015, we'll be solely responsible for snow removal on our property. If I want to take grader photos next winter, I'll have to chase Billy around Herman hoping to get some decent photos as he's clearing county roads. I don't think I'm that ambitious. Or obsessed. 
Later today we'll finish loading the Guppy, getting the beast ready to head South toward slightly warmer weather tomorrow. I did get the new curtains done, both the ones to block the cab from the rest of the interior and the "kitchen" curtains for the living/dining area. I'm not sure what era that fabric is from, probably the 1960s, but once again I'm thinking my aunt Thelma had odd taste. I must confess, though, that those curtains are growing on me. I started off thinking it was some of the ugliest stuff I'd ever seen, but it's amazing how attractive fabric can become when it's Free. And it is a cheerful pattern. 

We still have a bit of a curtain problem in the bedroom. The ones that came with the Guppy were in sad shape, adequate but just barely, so I replaced them with some curtains that had been in the guest cabin when we bought it. Turned out they work fine on two of the windows but are about half an inch short on the third. Not a big deal, but still something I'm going to want to deal with eventually. Now that the ugly, filthy valances are gone, we need to move the drapery rods up a couple inches anyway. I'll just plan on doing new curtains that are custom-fitted to each window so I can be sure each set is exactly the right length. It'll be a good project for this summer. Although who knows? Maybe I'll get lucky and find something ready-made and easily adaptable at a Home Goods or other store in our travels. I didn't have any luck when I looked around here, but when the retail options are Family Dollar and Shopko Hometown I wasn't expecting to. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A classic scam, 2015 version

Back when we still lived in Omaha, we discovered Craigslist. We had a couple small items for sale -- a cheap computer desk, an old aquarium -- and it seemed like a good way to get rid of them. Neither was worth bringing to a consignment shop and for sure we didn't have enough stuff to justify having a yard sale. So I listed them on Craigslist.

The first response we got was for the desk. This was a small computer desk that I'd gotten on clearance at Office Depot for maybe $20. It was one of those assemble-it-yourself mini-work stations that involved some metal tubing and laminated beaver puke. It was exactly what it sounds like: a useful piece of furniture but not exactly Chippendale.

Anyway, we get an email reply from someone purporting to want the desk. Says it's clear from the picture that it's exactly what that person was looking for and yep, they definitely will buy the desk. I respond saying, great, when would you like to pick it up? Get a response back with some nonsense about sending a money order, the money order will be for more than the value of the desk, and some other stuff that made absolutely no sense when you're talking about a desk being sold for what was essentially a pittance. My response was, of course, are you fucking nuts?

Right about the same time Craigslist started doing the scam alert message, and, bingo, suddenly it all made sense. There were scammers buying stuff using counterfeit money orders or bad checks. The naive seller would accept a check for more than the value of the goods and then hand some of that money back to the buyer's agent to pay for the shipping or moving or whatever fees. At the time, it seemed to me that someone was going through a lot of hassle for not much of a pay-off. Now I realize that when it was a low value item like that desk, the scammer wasn't going to bother with it at all. The responses to my replies to the first message were all just computer-generated robo-replies. If I had given the supposed buyer our address, there would have been no money order in the mail and no one would have ever shown up in person to pick up the desk.

Well, that scam is still making the rounds, albeit with a few embellishments. The museum recently decided to list two items on Craigslist that I'd found in the attic but that didn't fit in with the overall mission: a really nifty African tribal mask and an Azande spear. The mask is ebony and a design that's been common for several decades as a tchotchke to peddle to tourists visiting west Africa; the Azande are a people who reside in the Congo region. My assumption is that someone picked them up years ago when on a church mission or perhaps volunteering with the Peace Corps. How they wound up in the museum's attic is a mystery.

Anyway, the historical society voted some time ago that we would start selling things we do not need because we have so many duplicates (multiple buck saws, for example) or that don't fit the museum's mission, which is actually rather narrow -- we focus on Baraga County. If we knew that someone significant in county history was associated with the African items, we'd keep them, but when they're provenance unknown? Nope. They'll get sold. So I did a Craigslist ad a week or two ago.

You can guess what happened. The museum received an email reply to our ad. It was kind of a strange, wordy message from someone who wanted to know if they could come look at the item "after church." So I did a response saying that wasn't possible; please give an alternate time. That's when the bullshit started. This person was really, really interested, thought it looked great in the photos, but wasn't going to be able to get there in person. How about an address where a check could be sent and she'd make arrangements for her son to pick it up? Sounded okay to me, which is when the next message came: couldn't send a check for some odd reason, but would do a money order instead and it would be for more than the amount we were asking for and could we please . . . the usual scamming spiel.

Calling the way I felt "annoyed" is one of those understatements. I was really pissed -- both at the waste of my time and at myself for being gullible enough to not catch the scam with the first message. Then again, other than that one time with the computer desk, we'd sold a fair number of items without having any scammers slither out of the electronic woodwork.

What was the clue that should have tipped me off with the very first message? There were several. One was that other than the reference in the subject line, the name of the actual item was never mentioned. In addition, a real buyer would have asked some questions like "How much does it does weigh?" Most telling, our ad very clearly stated the mask was being sold by the Baraga County Historical Museum. If it hadn't been a robo-script, the buyer would have asked questions like "When is the museum open?" or "Where are you located in Baraga?"

And you want to hear the best part? I'd barely gotten done deleting the emails about the mask from the museum's gmail when guess what lands in the In Box? A response to our Craigslist ad about some curtain stretchers. This time there were no references to being a god-fearing person or wanting to stop by after church, but other than that it was word-for-word identical with the message about the mask. Christ on a crutch, what a waste of band width. . .

I now realize, of course, that the scamming messages have minimal human thought behind them. Someone turns the robo-script loose and it just trolls Craigslist ads regardless of item type or the price it's being sold for. If it happens to hit pay dirt on a big ticket item, the scammer will step in and do the final reeling in of the sucker. And how do I know for sure it's all done by spambots? Would any real live human actually want a set of curtain stretchers? I don't think so. . .

Actually, what I said about the best part isn't the best part. The best part is what I found when I did a Google image search for an appropriate graphic and found this:
You got it. It's the exact same message the museum received. Should I take comfort in the fact that obviously we're just one of the gazillion people this crook has tried to deceive? Or should I feel like a total chump for not recognizing the very first message as garbage? Maybe I'll just claim the recent subzero cold spell has frozen my brain cells.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pulitzer Project: A Fable

This cover illustration is deceptive. The
soldier's helmet is WWII; the book is set
during World War I. It does definitely
signal the author's intent, though. 
William Faulkner wrote A Fable in the 1940s during World War II. The book did not get published until almost ten years later, and it's easy to see why. It is, to say the least, anti-war. The book is one long rant about war being a racket contrived by the munitions industries and the generals. The arms manufacturers need war in order to keep their businesses profitable; the generals need war because it's the only reason for their existence. When there's a possibility peace will break out without it being officially negotiated, the generals on both sides kill their own troops in order to keep the war going.

This was probably the most difficult to read book by Faulkner that I've encountered so far, and I've read a lot of Faulkner. In fact, I was happy to see it come up on the list. I like Faulkner. I find some of the Southern Gothic soap opera that Faulkner indulges in a bit odd -- I am, after all several generations younger than Faulkner so have trouble getting my head around some of the bizarre prejudices common 100 years ago -- but usually the language flows so smoothly that Faulkner's books come close to qualifying as easy reading. A Fable was definitely an exception.

I'm not sure if it was the setting -- France during the final months of World War I -- the plot, or the sentence structure. The underlying narrative in A Fable parallels the narrative in the New Testament. A child is born in a stable in the Middle East with an unknown father who turns out to be a powerful person; he grows up in obscurity, ends up with 12 followers (one of whom betrays him), apparently preaches a message of peace, and ends up being executed while being lashed to a post between two criminals. Miraculous (or semi-miraculous) events occur around him, and it appears he's close to convincing the ordinary enlisted men on both sides in the war to just lay down their guns and walk away from the conflict. I don't know if there was much controversy about the book when it was published. It does strike me, though, as having the capability to get some people riled up much in the same way some people freaked out over The Last Temptation of Christ or The Satanic Verses. 

Then again, given that the book was written by Faulkner, an author noted for a convoluted style, and is written in a way that lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions rather than coming right out and saying explicitly that if Christ were to appear on a battlefield we'd kill Him, maybe most readers never picked up on the parallels at all. It's quite possible this is one of those books that a lot of people bought because it was a Book of the Month Club selection (does Book of the Month still exist?) and that they then gave up on after the first few pages. Faulkner's usual tendency to indulge in run-on sentences is in full flower here. I swear one sentence ran on for at least 3 pages. Three pages! One sentence. Unreal. Do you know what type of nightmare that is for a former copy editor to wade through? I'm moderately amazed I actually read the entire book.

A Fable actually has several narrative threads running through it. There's the story of a former horse groom, now a British soldier, who loved and lost a horse and is now running a scam that may or may not be a scam. There's the story of a disillusioned man who had enlisted, been promoted to an officership, realized he hated being an officer, and deliberately engaged in conduct that got him kicked back down to enlisted status. Various paths cross and recross, there are flashbacks, unexplained coincidences, characters knowing things they shouldn't have any way of knowing. There's a distinct hallucinatory quality to much of the book. Faulkner's books usually get pigeon-holed as "Southern Gothic;" this novel has more akin with authors whose work is labeled "magical realism."

This book won the Pulitzer in 1955. I think it happened to fall at just right the time -- it came out in 1954, just as Americans were recovering mentally from fighting a war in Korea that they had been unable to win. World War II left people with a good feeling. Sure, a lot of people died but we took care of Hitler, and, following the war, things were looking pretty good. Then the conflict in Korea came along. A book saying war is a racket had to resonate with the Pulitzer judges. If it had come out earlier, it would have flopped because World War II had everyone too hyped about how the U.S. had rescued the world. A few years later and it's probable the reaction would have been, "Holy shit, doesn't Faulkner have a decent editor?" or "Wow. Time to send Bill to detox again."  As it was, the book won prizes.

Then again, maybe there just weren't very many semi-literate books in the running. There were several years in the 1950s where no prize was awarded. Maybe the judges decided that even strange Faulkner was better than the other stuff publishers were pushing. I don't know. . . given a choice between No Time For Sergeants (also published in 1954) and A Fable, I guess A Fable at least looks like serious literature.  

Would I recommend it to other readers? I'm not sure. I have a hunch the book would have come across better if I read slower or if I'd been reading it out loud. As it was, those long, long run-on sentences, the solid blocks of text that went on for multiple pages, were a distinct problem. One of the things I learned when an old pro taught me layout and pagination was a reader's eyes need to take an occasional break. You have to have some white space -- paragraph breaks -- on the page or readers' attention drifts. There isn't much white space in A Fable. If you like Faulkner and enjoy a challenge, go for it.

Next up on the list? Andersonville, which I've already read so I'll skip ahead to A Death in the Family by James Agee. Odds are I won't get to it until September, though, as (what a surprise, she said sarcastically) the L'Anse Public Library does not have it in its collection. We're about to hit the road in the Guppy, and by the time we get back the Interlibrary Loan program will have shut down for the summer. They quit taking requests around May 1 and don't start up again until after Labor Day. It'll wait. Going by the title, I'm going to guess it's not exactly a comedic novel.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ethnic cleansing, eggs, and baskets

I don't normally waste much time thinking about foreign affairs -- I figure it's pointless when there isn't much I can do about them -- but I happened to catch a discussion on NPR yesterday morning that gave me pause. Following recent attacks on Jews or Jewish businesses, e.g., that Jewish supermarket in Paris, Israeli's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is once again urging European Jews to move to Israel. He's doing the usual Zionist sales pitch about all Jews living together in one place, their ancestral homeland of Israel. Part of the sales pitch is that it's so much safer there for Jews than it is elsewhere in the world. But is it?

I could be wrong, but I think if I were a member of a group that has historically been persecuted repeatedly for thousands of years, the last thing I'd want to do is concentrate my people in one central location, especially when that central location is surrounded by people who make no secret of hating my people. Not only that, the people who hate my people still manage to periodically launch rocket attacks or send in suicide bombers to create havoc. Is a country where apartments come with steel shutters for the windows and built-in bomb shelters really such an attractive option? All it took was a couple episodes of House Hunters International featuring people looking for a place to live in Tel Aviv and I'd figured out there are times when a diaspora is a good thing. If you're a Jew living in Sweden or the United Kingdom or almost any place else on the planet, maybe the local synagogue or a kosher market will get targeted by fanatics, but unless you're ultra Orthodox you can go about your day just blending in with everyone else. Even if you wear a kippah, most people don't notice it. On the other hand, if you fall for the sales pitch to move to Israel and be safe, it doesn't matter where you go, it's a potential target: every shopping center, bus stop, restaurant, etc., in the country is on the hit list of Palestinian extremists.

I don't know. Maybe I'm totally off base in thinking this way, but there are days when I get the impression Netanyahu's goal in life is to create super-sized Masada. This is not a good thing.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Coldest morning so far this year

Got up this morning and noticed it's 24 below zero outside. I think that's the coldest temperature we've seen so far this winter. It's not bad, especially when I'm observing it from the comfort of a warm living room with a hot cup of coffee in my hand. I have written before about the joys of living up here on the tundra, reminisced about residing in the Shoebox (aka a 12 x 60 mobile home) while relying on a homemade woodburning box stove. That's the stove that currently heats the Woman Cave when I decide to do some sewing. It does a pretty decent job of keeping the Cave warm, but back when the Cave was the back porch to that mobile home? Not so much.

In any case, if this is the coldest it gets this winter, things have been pretty mild. The week the Younger Daughter was born we were in a cold snap that had featured subzero temperatures for weeks on end. I think it was 30 below in the middle of the day when she finally decided to emerge. I went a full three weeks past my original due date. We started joking that the kid had heard the weather forecasts and decided to wait for Spring. The doctor ordered x-rays (this was back in the days before routine sonograms) and decided he'd guessed wrong on the projected arrival. When the kid emerged, however, she was 21 inches long, weighed almost 9 pounds, had a full head of hair and some really long talons fingernails, which were all pretty clear signs that, yeah, she'd spent more than the usual amount of time in the womb. The upper end of the "average" range for length of newborns in developed nations is 20 inches.

I'm not sure just how long that particular cold snap lasted, but I do recall going through amazing amounts of propane. We hadn't been able to get a bulk tank (neither dealer had one available when we set up the Shoebox that fall) and it seemed like the delivery guy was there every other day with a fresh 100-lb cylinder. It was before we built the back porch so the gas furnace was our only heat source. After we disassembled the Shoebox in 2006, it became clear why it was impossible to heat: the insulation in the walls was barely an inch thick and was not stapled in place. It was just loose batts with no backing paper stuffed between the studs. With nothing to hold it up, it probably started settling as soon as the aluminum siding went up over it at the factory in Indiana. There were gaps several feet high at the top of the walls when we pulled the paneling off. I guess the most amazing thing is that we managed to keep the interior as warm as we did back in the '70s.

The S.O. was reminiscing about the Shoebox the other day. He remembered that the first year we were in it. It got delivered and set up late enough in the fall that he didn't have time to get skirting on it. Instead, we bought a bunch of straw bales and stacked them around the exterior, Looking back and remembering what other winters were like, that may have been the warmest winter we ever spent in the trailer, probably because we didn't lose much heat through the floor.

And then, of course, there was the winter of 1993-94. I was working at Michigan Tech. We had day after day of subzero weather. We had a block heater for the car, not that it helped the battery at all. There was many a morning when I'd have to start the car (a '73 Scamp) using a battery charger. I'd be scraping frost off the inside of the windshield most of the 40+ miles to campus. The car had a decent heater, but when it's 40 below it takes awhile to get things warm. At noon, the parking lot would be full of people going out on their lunch breaks to start their cars to run them for awhile in the hopes the car would start again at quitting time. It was an adventure. In retrospect, I was insane.

So why am I reminiscing about cold, cold winters this morning? I don't know. After all, this is pretty typical February weather. It's often the month when we get the coldest temperatures, just like March is the month for really heavy snows. Maybe I've seen one too many climate change denial posts -- "the planet can't be getting warmer; we still have winter!" -- or maybe I'm just feeling relieved I don't have to go out into that frigid air if I don't want to.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Cleo has the right idea

The only way she could get closer to the wood stove would be to sprawl right under it. The weather forecast for today is Nasty -- subzero with winds gusting up to 45 mph -- so I don't think either the S.O. or I will be venturing outdoors very much.

I spent most of yesterday down at the museum. I'm trying to get my mess cleaned up so things will be in decent shape when we leave for Missouri. That way the other volunteers won't have anything to worry about or explain away the clutter if a school group or some other organization decides they'd like a tour. I've got three boxes of stuff that I hauled down from the attic left to catalog and about a dozen rolled up maps and blueprints, all stacked on a table in the exhibit area. One box should be fast and easy -- it's small, and it's artifacts. The other two will probably get shuffled to a less conspicuous location. They're packed full of documents, most of which appear to be related to Bernard Lambert's research for his book on Bishop Baraga, Shepherd of the Wilderness (currently out of print, but available from the Baraga County Historical Museum for a mere $15 plus $4 for shipping if anyone's interested; I've found so many copies of the book since I started emptying the attic that we now have at least half a dozen extras). Lambert's papers are going to be a challenge -- hard to classify, but I really dislike the idea of doing an entry in the finding aid that would just say "Miscellaneous research notes" when it looks like they'll fill several document boxes.
What's left in the attic. The pile extends back about 15 feet, maybe a little more,
and includes at least one large steamer trunk. None of the boxes are
labeled, or, if they are, I've discovered the labels rarely match the contents. When
I first started emptying the attic, I thought it would take several years
 to sort and catalog. I haven't revised that estimate much, although
 it is going a little faster than anticipated.

The attic itself is far from empty. I figure I'm maybe at the halfway point, which is moderately amazing considering just how full it was packed. The section shown in the photo is probably the most secure part of the storage area. Although that OSB isn't nailed down it is at least OSB. The first section I emptied did not have a floor, just miscellaneous weirdness like old bulletin boards laid across the joists or nothing at all -- I found a few boxes sitting between the joists directly on the drywall of the ceiling below. The museum was lucky that drywall never started pulling loose.

Coolest thing I've found in the attic recently? A lovely illustrated looking like it's never been read 1885 edition of A Cotter's Saturday Night by Robert Burns, which I wish we didn't have to sell but we probably will. It doesn't really fit into the scope of our museum, so it'll end up with the other used books in the gift shop this summer as well as included with our used books listings on

In any case, I'll probably be back down at the museum again tomorrow if driving conditions settle down. If it's still windy, though, I'll stay home. Thanks to the wind whipping off the lake yesterday, it was pretty much a total whiteout in Baraga. Pulling out on to a highway frequented by logging trucks can be rather harrowing when your visibility is limited to barely 100 feet. It doesn't help your peace of mind much when you notice there are idiots running around in that mess with their lights off, like the asshat in the jeep who insisted on tailgating me most of the way to Family Dollar. Then again, there's something about driving an SUV that makes people seem to think they're invulnerable. . . but that's a subject for a separate post. Right now it's time to throw another log on the fire.

Friday, February 13, 2015

One week to go

And then we hit the road in search of Spring. Over the past couple of months we've managed to check off a few items on the To Do list for the Guppy, we've added a few items to the household stuff stashed in the cabinets and pulled a few things out, and in general things are looking good. The S.O. has been busy shoveling, trying to find the tow dolly. Well, not exactly find it -- we know where it is -- he's been working on cleaning out around it so it'll be easier to pull out of the snowbank.

I was hoping we'd have a few warmish days this coming week so it would be a little easier to be in the Guppy getting the new curtains hung, supplies loaded, and everything securely stashed. It doesn't look like we're going to be that lucky. According to the 10-day forecast, the next 7 days are going to be Cold, as in single digit cold, or worse (tomorrow's predicted high is a balmy 2 below). If we're lucky, by late afternoon some days we may experience highs in the teens. It's not going to a whole lot of fun trying to get the Guppy ready to go with mittens on my hands.

The hardest part, though, may not be anything that's actually going into the Guppy. It's going to be fun getting the tarp off. That sucker is going to be frozen stiff, it's probably got ice on it under the snow (there's more snow on it now than there was when that picture was taken), and it's going to be a real joy to try to get folded. Of course, we don't have to do a perfect job of folding it; we just need to turn it into a small enough bundle to get it into the barn.

I was looking at my car yesterday, which has the usual U.P. accumulation of ice built up in the wheel wells and elsewhere, and wondering (a) how much of a pain is that mess going to be for the S.O. when he's trying to secure the car on the tow dolly, and (b) just how long we'll have to be in Missouri before it all melts off. Guess I'll have the answers in a week or so.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

And you think politics are ugly now?

I just finished reading a fascinating book, The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War that Divided Them. The author, Chris DeRose, provides brief descriptions of the administrations of the presidents and administrations that fell between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and then discusses how the five living ex-presidents responded to the Civil War. You think politics can be nasty now? Or that "journalists," especially the ones on Faux News, have a tendency to lie?  Read some history, my friends, because compared to the 1850s and 1860s we are living in a remarkably civilized time.

Granted, no one in South Carolina has decided (yet) that it would be a good idea to have the state militia open fire on Fort Jackson, although I'm sure there are some idiots on the far right who think that it would be a good idea. The lack of open warfare does have to make the present day look a lot better than Lincoln's time regardless of whatever vitriol gets spilled on the air or in Congress. But, holy wah, they were nasty back then.

Among other things, no matter what Bill Clinton or George W. Bush might privately think about the current occupant of the White House, they're polite in public. All the ex-presidents are nice to each other. They don't openly criticize the decisions their successors make or allow themselves to get sucked into second guessing existing policy. Their minions and/or acolytes might get nasty, but the ex-presidents themselves? Never. In contrast, Lincoln had to deal with five living former presidents who weren't nearly as restrained. Four of them were pro-slavery and either openly secessionist or close to it. John Tyler, in fact, was a delegate to the Virginia state convention that voted for secession. He bears the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. president to have died as an enemy of the country he once led.

Andrew Jackson was the 8th President of the United States; Abraham Lincoln was the 16th. Their administrations fell a mere 24 years apart but were separated by a string of one-term office holders, two of whom rose to the position from the vice presidency following the death of a president. These are the guys who cause high school students' eyes to glaze over and who most of us can never remember: Martin Van Buren (who I remember primarily because in at least one of Gore Vidal's historical novels his characters speculate that Van Buren is Aaron Burr's illegitimate son; I have no clue if Vidal based that bit of fiction on any actual 19th century gossip), William Harrison (notable for, if I recall correctly, insisting on marching in the rain on inauguration day, getting sick as a result of his stubbornness, and dying barely a month later), John Tyler, James K. Polk (whose name only comes up as the answer to trivia questions about presidents with 4-letter names; there have been five. Polk is the one no one can ever remember)(Taft, Ford, Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger are the other four), Zachary Taylor (rumored to have been poisoned; he was actually exhumed a couple years ago and tested for arsenic); Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan.

Of the five living ex-presidents at the time Lincoln took office, only Van Buren came close to supporting the administration. Van Buren, who had been Andrew Jackson's vice president, was nominally a Democrat but appears to have tried the hardest to keep his mouth shut. He was active in organizing support for the Union troops and made a point of staying out of politics. Unfortunately for Lincoln, Van Buren died in 1862. As for the others? The vitriol flowed freely. Pierce referred publicly to Lincoln as an ape, an ignoramus, a tyrant who was shredding the Constitution and should be removed from office by any means necessary. Pierce even carried on an active correspondence with Jefferson Davis during the war -- prior to the war, Pierce had promoted Davis as a presidential candidate (and what an interesting alternate history novel that would make: Jefferson and Varina Davis in the White House instead of Abraham and Mary Lincoln). Pierce actually came close to being indicted for treason when Union forces captured the Confederate capital in Richmond and the Pierce-Davis correspondence was found.

All the ex-presidents wrote long letters, which usually included a phrase saying that although they didn't intend the actual letter for publication, the recipients were free to share their sentiments with others. They described Lincoln publicly in terms that today not even the talking heads on Faux News would consider using in dissing President Obama. Lincoln was a subhuman mongrel, a shambling ape. A few of them nourished fantasies of returning to the White House themselves; after all, they'd served only one term. . . and a couple of them (Tyler, Fillmore) hadn't even been elected to the office to begin with. The fact their party's convention had passed them over after seeing how they did the first time around didn't faze them. They were still convinced they knew the pulse of the country and could do a better job than Lincoln. It does show how delusional politicians can get: Pierce, Buchanan, and Fillmore were being reviled as Copperheads, they were openly mocked in the popular press, but because they still attracted a crowd of fellow Copperheads when they spoke, they thought they represented mainstream thought (and, wow, does that ever sound familiar, kind of like a Sarah Palin or Ted Nugent public appearance).

Copperheads were the Civil War equivalent of today's Tea Party, a radical faction within the Democratic Party. Copperheads wanted to end the Civil War on almost any terms, including restoring slavery throughout the entire United States. Their position was that whatever it took to get the secessionist states back in the Union was okay with them. It didn't seem to register with them that once thousands of Union troops had died in battle, most of the Union states weren't feeling particularly conciliatory. Pierce was so tone-deaf (or oblivious to reality) that he gave an anti-Lincoln, pro-Southern speech the day after the Union army managed to defeat the Confederates at Gettysburg. The crowd present at the speech cheered him; the rest of the country was disgusted and horrified. Secure within their own little bubble, the Copperheads were convinced that they would win the 1864 presidential election handily, especially when General George McClellan (one of the most useless military men in the history of warfare) was their candidate. They were, needless to say, stunned when Lincoln was re-elected by a large majority.

John Tyler probably caused the fewest headaches for Lincoln. Tyler had retired to a Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest, when he left the presidency. Initially snubbed by his neighbors who perceived him as having been too pro-free state while he was president, by the time the war broke out he had repaired his reputation within the state. He was elected as a delegate to the state convention that voted for secession and then as a representative to the Congress of the Confederate States of America. If he had still been living when the war ended, he might have been tried for treason along with Jefferson Davis and other members of the CSA government. He was extremely critical of Lincoln, but as an open member of the Confederacy, his opinions probably didn't carry much weight in the North.

A small digression: Tyler's home, Sherwood Forest, is the only presidential home that's still owned by a member of the president's family. His grandson Harrison lives there. Yep. Tyler's grandson. Tyler was married twice and had 15 children; he was 63 when Harrison's father Lyon was born. Lyon in turn was married twice and had children late in life; he was 75 when Harrison was born.

Several things struck me while reading this book. One was that no matter how badly most of the politicians mentioned in this book screwed up, they were never willing to admit they'd blown it, e.g., that getting rid of the Missouri Compromise was a bad idea. There were exceptions: Stephen Douglas publicly castigated himself for having pushed for state sovereignty (i.e., letting new states decide for themselves whether to be free or slave), and Lincoln was notable for being willing to change his mind and admit errors. Almost no one else, however, seemed capable of saying they'd blown it. If anything, the worse things got, the less willing they were to admit they'd had a hand in creating the situation.

I did feel a few twinges of pity for a couple of the ex-presidents. Pierce, for example, was close friends with the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. They'd been good friends since their college days; Hawthorne dedicated one of his last books to Pierce; and Hawthorne was actually visiting with Pierce when he died. Nonetheless, Pierce was by then so universally disliked that the people arranging Hawthorne's funeral cut Pierce out. In the normal course of events, Pierce would have been at least a pall bearer if not one of the eulogists. Not this time. I don't know if Pierce was told not to attend at all (DeRose doesn't make that clear), but given that Pierce is described as distraught over the exclusion, it's possible he was indeed told to stay away.

In addition to shedding light on some of the political maneuvering going on in the years preceding the war, the book also makes it totally clear that the one and only reason the southern states seceded was slavery. It wasn't states' rights in a general sense because the only right the southerners were interested in was the right to own slaves. DeRose provides direct quotes from the various secession declarations, and in every one where a state did a specific statement of secession, that state gives the right to own slaves as its reason. This is a historical fact that needs to be pointed out on a regular basis along with the fact that it was the south that started the war. It was not a glorious cause; it was a war to perpetuate slavery. And it was not a "war of northern aggression" when it began with a southern state attacking a federal facility.

The Presidents' War is a recent publication. I actually found it on the New Books shelf at the library -- which prompted a "holy wah, it's actual history" reaction, because that space is usually filled with the most recent Janet Evanovich or Nora Roberts releases. It's quite readable, and it does probably provide enough biographical information on each of the key players that any burning desire a person may have had to learn more about Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan will probably be satisfied. It's also nicely concise for a history that covers several decades; DeRose did a good job of figuring out what was important without loading the book up with material that's been well-covered elsewhere. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in antebellum and Civil War history.

What other kind could we have?

This amuses me every time I see it: the Winter Weather Advisory. The tv weather bunnies say it all the time -- "There's a winter weather advisory for. . ." -- and it gets flashed in red across the top of the online forecasts. It's February, guys, what other type of weather could we have? Especially here in the Upper Peninsula? Not only does the calendar say it's Winter, there's three feet of snow on the ground and the temperatures are in single digits or negative numbers. Of course we're going to have "winter weather." It's Winter! Not only do I not need a weatherman to tell me which way the wind is blowing, I don't need one to tell me to remember to wear mittens.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A few thoughts on why small businesses fail

The other day the S.O. and I drove over to Hurley, approximately 100 miles one way, to help the older grandson with his income taxes. He'd never done them online before and was a little apprehensive about the process, something that's not going to be true in the future. Companies like TurboTax have gotten it down to where if you can read at anything above a 3rd grade level, you can follow their instructions and fill in the blanks with no trouble. We had a good time bonding over his taxes, we imparted some words of wisdom ("Try not to blow your refund as fast as we would"), and headed home. It was not a bad way to spend an afternoon. It kind of made up for the unpleasant experience we'd had at lunch.

On the drive over, we decided to stop for lunch in Bergland. A new restaurant had opened there a few months ago, a place that calls itself JW's BBQ and Brew. We walked in around 12:45, the place was relatively busy but not packed (about a third of the tables were occupied and there were a couple guys sitting at the bar). Our first impression was good -- it's a brand new building and it does look nice inside. It's a seat yourself place so we found a table and waited for the server. Anyone care to take a guess at how long it took for a server to bother coming over to our table? Or, for that matter acknowledge our existence? There was a huge clock hanging on the wall so it was easy to time it. Ten minutes.

The fact that it took ten minutes just to get a server to the table did not bode well for this particular establishment. The S.O. and I looked over the menu and both opted to order items that should have taken nanoseconds to prepare. We both ordered sandwiches. He asked for the brisket with fries as a side; I ordered pulled pork with a side of cole slaw. Half an hour later. . .

I repeat, half an hour later we finally saw some food. It took so long the server actually wound up refilling my Coke once. That never happens. Never. Invariably when we stop for lunch somewhere half my drink ends up still in the glass when we leave. The fact the server did do that one refill meant we did decide to tip, although not as much as we normally would.

You know, I could semi-understand it taking a while to build a sandwich if there was some actual cooking involved, but when it's a barbecue place? The pork is sitting in a metal tub ready to go, and the brisket is ready for slicing. The only cooking our order required was the fries, and just how long do french fries take? Not half an hour.

After we got home, I thought about doing a scathing review on Yelp but changed my mind. We'll never stop there again, but who knows? Maybe if enough people bitch about slow service, they'll get their act together. I did leave a comment on their Facebook page about all the stuff they're doing wrong. I couldn't resist: their latest post was basically a Help Wanted ad. They're looking to hire cooks and wait staff. I suggested that if they do, they try training them. The server who waited on us didn't have a clue what she was doing.

A short list of stuff she did wrong:
1. She saw us come in, but made several trips to other tables and then back to behind the bar or into the kitchen before bothering to acknowledge our existence.
2. When she did come to the table, she came empty-handed to ask if we'd like to see menus. She should have had them in her hand. People don't enter restaurants and sit at tables just to enjoy the view of the parking lot. In fact, she wasted a lot of time and energy running around empty-handed. Obviously, no one ever bothered telling her one of the fundamental rules of working in a restaurant: your hands are never empty.
3. When she asked if we'd like menus, she did not bother to ask what we'd like to drink. We didn't get to order a beverage until she came back to take the food order -- the place sells beer, wine, and mixed drinks. Which beings me to
4. She should have been pushing the local beers they either have on tap or available in cans and bottles. She never said a word about any of the booze, but that's where the profit margin for a lot of restaurants with liquor licenses falls.  Doesn't matter if it's lunch or dinner, when customers come in, one of the first things the server should do is ask them if they'd like a glass of wine, beer, or a mixed drink. This is especially true if the kitchen has a tendency to be slow. We wouldn't have ordered anything alcoholic, but she didn't know that.
5. She did not push the daily special (a half-rack of ribs), nor did she mention the soup of the day.
6. She didn't try to sell us a dessert. They weren't very busy; it was a situation that calls for trying to get customers to linger and spend more money instead of encouraging them to leave.

I have a hunch she figured out we weren't exactly happy customers when she came to collect and we had the exact amount, right down to the penny, ready for her. There was going to be no cheerful "Keep the change" from us. The rather miserly (for us) tip she found after we left probably came as a moderately pleasant surprise.

Right now the restaurant is apparently doing reasonably well. It's been a good winter for snowmobiling, the motels in Bergland seem to be doing a booming business, and there aren't a lot of local choices when it comes to going out to eat. But you can't count on tourists to keep a restaurant going 12 months out of the year. You have to get repeat local business -- and they lost ours. How many others have they managed to turn off since they opened? I can see it now. Business will slow down, they'll start losing money, and you know who'll they blame? The government for all its onerous regulations. If only they didn't have to meet health department standards they'd be making money. Or if they didn't have to pay legal wages. Or if there were no taxes. They won't take a long hard look at themselves and realize that maybe, just maybe, they should have trained their staff -- or not hired their wife's best friend, their slacker brother-in-law, or a cousin or two.

I have no idea just what percentage of new restaurants fail quickly after opening, but I have noticed they seem to come and go quickly. And, of course, I've watched  Kitchen Nightmares enough times to see the many ways in which people can drive businesses into the ground. I think if I was going to open a restaurant or a pub, I'd at least do a few marathon sessions of watching Gordon Ramsay or Jon Taffer (Bar Rescue) in action. Somehow, though, I have a hunch that instead of consulting with Gordon Ramsay via television, the owners of J.W.'s BBQ & Brew decided that hey, we like to cook -- we should open a restaurant -- and now the only question is how long it'll be before there's a For Sale sign on the building. Or, more likely, the smoldering ashes of the insurance fire. After all, there's precedent. That's how the last restaurant on that site went out of business.

We would, incidentally, put up with lousy service if the food was better than average. It's not. It's bland and it's overpriced. It's a shame, because there really aren't many options left on the western end of M-28.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Not all taste buds are created equal

My recent post on using Sysco honey garnered a few comments, both here and on Facebook, suggesting that it is indeed possible to tell the difference between the industrial  blend in that Sysco jug and the artisanal honey produced by bees indulging in one specific type of flower. I have no doubt that for some people that's true, but it's not for me. To me honey tastes like . . . honey. I don't care if it comes in a Sysco jug, a SueBee bottle, or from the apiary a couple miles away from us, it's all just honey. Someone could hand me a chunk of honey comb ripped fresh from a hive and I'd probably say, yep, tastes just like the Sysco stuff.

I think one thing my well-meaning commenters are forgetting is that not all taste buds are created equal. A long time ago in a galaxy far away -- graduate school -- one of my colleagues gave a talk as part of the brown bag lunch seminars our department sponsored. I can no longer recall the point of the talk, although if I was feeling sufficiently compulsive about it I could probably find my notes from that day (I still have a bunch of notebooks from back then). All I can remember is that Mary Ellen passed around strips of paper that were about the same size and shape as the ones used to do pH tests. I did some quick Googling and learned that these strips are usually impregnated with sodium benzoate. Mary Ellen told us to taste the strips. There were about 2 dozen people present. Most people said it tasted sweet. Three of us, however, spit them out in record time because they were unbelievably, grossly bitter. Or maybe sour. According to the information I found, the division is usually a little more even in a group: about a third will think the strip tastes sweet, another third will describe it as sour, and the final third think it's bitter. And there are a few people who will say it has no flavor at all.

I'm not sure what the point of the strips is, other than maybe to remind people in food sciences that not everyone tastes food in the same way. Or, alternate scenario, to use in high school general science classes as an illustration that genetics deals each of us a slightly different hand. In any case, in addition to the genetic flukes that make some people think something is sweet while other people think it's bitter, there are folks who have more taste buds on their tongues. This supposedly makes them better at distinguishing minute differences in flavors.

When I was Googling, I found a number of references to "Super tasters," people with a gazillion taste buds crammed into the space where most of us humans have only a few. Would that ability be a blessing or a curse? Yes, you can take a sip of a wine and immediately detect all its subtle flavors. On the other hand, you're also going to notice the swill that's one step away from vinegar much quicker than someone with a less discriminating palate. And odds are there's a lot more swill out there than there is really good wine. So you super tasters are cursed having to buy the really good (aka probably expensive) vintages they keep behind the counter at the wine store while we peasants are happy with Gallo in paper boxes.

Nonsuper tasters are also cursed, but in the opposite way. Instead of their food choices becoming limited because of their insensitive palates, they're likely to end up as Fat, Fat, Fat because they'll gorge themselves because they need more sugar, salt, grease, or Tabasco slathered on like ketchup before something tastes good. This has to be one of the dumbest theories I've ever read, to be honest. Although it is true that one way to make mediocre food taste better is to up the sugar and/or salt content -- which is one reason so many commercially prepared food products are so loaded with both.

In addition to the sodium benzoate test, there's another one that checks for the PTC gene -- if you have the PTC gene you'll be more aware of bitter tastes and repelled by them, or so the theory goes. This is a trait that supposedly helped our primitive ancestors avoid eating toxic plants. But, as one blogger noted after having done a taste test experiment himself, there's more to enjoying food and beverages than just genetics. There's social conditioning. If you associate certain foods or beverages with having a good time your mind is going to decide that food or beverage is probably pretty good, too. I know more than a few people whose initial reaction to something was less than enthusiastic but who discovered that in the presence of friends or family spinach eventually became edible.

So what's the bottom line? I'm not sure. Does my personal inability to taste subtle differences in honey mean I'm doomed to never be able to pick up differences in tastes in other substances? No clue. Does it matter? Not really, because you can't miss what you've never had.

A side note: Mary Ellen Jones was one of the smartest and also one of the most under-appreciated students in the Science and Technology Studies graduate program at VaTech. Thanks to the combination of sexism and intellectual elitism, she didn't get taken nearly as seriously as she should have. She was a woman interested in issues in agriculture, a subject area that almost no one in science studies thinks is worth thinking about (so what if we all depend on it to keep eating?). There's a definite snob hierarchy. The people doing history of theoretical physics are at the top of the heap; the lesser mortals who are actually looking at things affecting people's day to day lives get sneered at on a regular basis. She wrote a really nice dissertation on negotiating biotech policy. I don't know where she is now, but I hope she's achieved the success she deserved. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Speaking of trains

The S.O. has decided it would be nice to be able to see trains from the house again. He's decided one of his summer projects in 2015 will be creating an opening through the overgrown cow pasture that will allow us to see the CN freight trains from our living room. Of course, once that opening is created, he's going to have to keep hacking at it with the brush blade on our gas-powered weed eater. The photo shows what the prospective opening looks like now.

Most of the brush between us and the tracks is speckled alder, a species that is remarkably adept at springing back from brush cutting. It's a pioneering species -- up here on the tundra it moves into abandoned farm fields with remarkable speed. When it comes to reproducing, speckled alder covers all the bases: it has both male and female flowers on the same plant so it can self-pollinate; the seeds are lightweight and spread easily; it will send up suckers from its roots; and it will root opportunistically if a branch touches the ground. It's actually a great plant for the environment -- it is a nitrogen producer so it enriches the soil -- but it can drive you mildly crazy when you try to keep it cut back.

For some reason, I'm having visions of the grandsons being handed weed whips and brush hooks every time they come to visit for the next few years. Either that or we need to start renting goats.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Another of life's little mysteries

Just how many old railroad ties are there?

Yesterday the S.O. and I happened to be heading home just as the CN freight train decided to start backing up from a railroad crossing. You can't see it in the photo, but the exposed rail stops before it actually gets to the crossing -- the train had gotten that far in heading down the hill to L'Anse before the engineer decided for some reason to throw it into reverse. Did he suddenly remember he'd forgotten to pick up his mandatory four empty cars at Nestoria and decided to back up to get them? Maybe he noticed brake pressure wasn't what it should be and decided to back up to Summit Siding to drop off a few loaded cars?

But why he decided to start back up isn't what intrigues me in looking at the photo. It's all those gondolas. He's heading downhill so that means every one of those cars is loaded with old railroad ties. He's hauling them to the J. H. Warden Generating Station in L'Anse. The powerplant converted to burning biomass a few years ago. Ever since then, it's been receiving gondolas full of old railroad ties that get shredded and burnt. The Warden plant also burns a lot of raw wood chips, which is what I think most people assumed would be its primary fuel source when the plant went through the conversion process. You know, when someone says "biomass" you don't anticipate getting to live with the smell of burning creosote.

Anyway, when a friend who lives in town was complaining about the plant's odor problems a year or two ago, I made comforting noises and said, "Don't worry. Sooner or later they'll run out of old railroad ties." Now I'm beginning to wonder. We see these long, long trains heading down the hill full of old railroad ties on an almost daily basis. The woodyard for the Warden plant has mountains of them. And they keep coming. Just how endless is the supply? It's a mystery.

As for the mandatory four empty cars, they're to supply more braking power. It's a continuous grade from Summit down to L'Anse, including the section in the photo -- it looks flat, but it's not. It's sloping. And not much farther along, it slopes a lot more, up to 3.5 percent, which is pretty steep for a railroad grade. The train is actually sitting right about at the point where 50-some years ago another freight, one that was going uphill, ran out of power, couldn't get the brakes to hold, and started rolling backwards. End result?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Why I don't bother watching the "news" channels

Last night I was in kind of an odd, let's see what's happening out in the world mood so I suggested to the S.O. that we watch MSNBC while waiting for it to get late enough to link to the With-Luck-You-See TV local news live stream. Since  WLUC out of Marquette started streaming the local news, we've started watching it primarily to catch Karl Bohnak's weather forecasts. That, and to see how excited he gets when there's snow predicted -- the man is a snow junkie.

Anyway, every so often I get curious about what's happening out there in pundit land. What is the topic du jour? Are they still obsessing about Ferguson? Are the chattering classes willing to concede any Democrats other than Hillary Clinton exist? What's the latest dumb thing to pop out of some politician's head?

The answer to the Hillary question is, of course, that no, the media is still thoroughly obsessed with Mrs. Clinton. They're wondering why no other Democratic candidates are emerging without ever stopping to reflect that maybe, just maybe, if they actually talked about a few of them (e.g., Jim Webb) the public in general would figure out there are other possibilities. I'd hate to see the Democrats degenerate into the sort of clown car spectacle going on among the Republicans at the moment, but it would be nice to hear about someone other than the former Secretary of State.

So what else is happening in the world? What topic is worth eating up air time on "Politics Nation"? Holy wah, Bruce Jenner has come out as transgender. The bad plastic surgery finally makes sense: he's transitioning to being a woman.

Question: why does anyone care? It's been a long time since he was on a Wheaties box. There have been plenty of other well-known people deciding they'd been born in the wrong body (Chaz Bono, for example) so why should any of us take any interest in Bruce Jenner?  You'd think the public would have collectively seen enough of him on reality tv, thanks to his being the stepfather of several Kardashians. But according to the panel dishing on Jenner's transition, the public is fascinated. Jenner has become tabloid fodder, and the tabloids have not been kind. (Or so they say; I don't recall seeing anything particularly dramatic screaming at me from the covers of the tabloids when I've been standing in the check-out line at Larry's Market lately.)

I will concede that having heard this news, I had some not particularly kind thoughts myself, like "Is the man insane? Is this a symptom of dementia?" But then I have that same reaction whenever I hear about any man deciding he should actually have been a woman. I am a woman. I've had a pretty good look at the downsides of being born female. Back in the '90s I thought economist Deidre McCloskey was totally insane when she announced she identified as a woman. I'd met McCloskey, I'd heard her speak back when she was still Donald. Donald was a balding, bearded man -- it was, to say the least, difficult to imagine that person as a woman.

I have no doubt that there are persons born, so to speak, into the wrong bodies. Gender identity is a lot more fluid than many of us want to admit. I also know there are persons born with ambiguous identity based on genitalia and get labelled as female when male would have been more accurate and vice versa. And I can totally understand why adolescents and young adults would struggle with this. But once you hit your 50s (McCloskey was 53 when she publicly became Deidre) or 60s (Jenner is 65)? What man in his right mind would want to be a post-menopausal woman in modern day America? I know feminists do a lot of blathering about the wisdom of crones, but the reality is that it is not particularly easy being an old lady. You're effectively invisble. You have no power. No one takes you seriously unless your name is Hillary, and even then half the time you get mocked by the media.

Still, setting aside questions about why Jenner felt compelled to do this so late in life, what makes Jenner's transition newsworthy? Why eat up broadcast minutes over something so banal?  I have no clue. I just have a hunch that somewhere on this planet, somewhere that was definitely outside the borders of the United States, there were people tuning into "news" programs and seeing actual news.

Bottom line? Next time I'll suggest streaming Al Jazeera.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The cupboard cleaning continues

The cane syrup is gone. I've moved on to the Sysco honey. It looks remarkably dark, so dark in fact that the S.O. wondered what it was after I'd transferred some to a squeeze bottle, but it's really honey.

I have heard people claim that they can tell the difference in flavors with honey, that the honey from bees that have gorged themselves on one type of flower produce a honey that tastes different than bees that have indulged in others. I don't know. I've had commercially produced honey (the national brand names like Sue Bee) and honey from backyard hives and can't tell the difference. To me honey always just tastes like . . .honey. The Sysco "light amber" (which makes me wonder just how black "dark amber" would be) Grade A honey is no exception. It may be almost as dark as molasses, but it still tastes like honey.

I think I may have idiosyncratic taste buds, though, because when I went looking for the usual calorie comparison information the text said that although honey has more calories than sugar (23 per teaspoon opposed to 16) it's sweeter so you don't have to use as much. I've never found that to be true. To me honey isn't particularly sweet at all. It's not a bad taste, but it's also definitely not as sweet as either sugar or cane syrup.

The honey was a gift, too, an unopened jug that was among leftover supplies from a girls' camp in northern Wisconsin. I think I've mentioned before that an acquaintance works there as a maintenance person and ends up with a ton of various edibles every fall when they clear out anything and everything that might tempt raccoons or other varmints.