Archive for August, 2011

Hostages

August 31, 2011

This year has been a tough one for the US. We’ve seen tornadoes plow through population centers with devastating results. Snow falls that set records both for their totals and for the cost of cleaning up after them gave rise to floods that cause a great deal of damage. Large swathes of the Southwest, already hit hard by drought, saw huge and uncontrolled fires scorch tens of thousands of acres. Now, large areas of the East Coast have been hammered by Hurricane Irene. These disasters effect not just the areas that were immediately hit, but also the nation at large. So the federal government, largely in the form of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has stepped in to help those who have, in many cases, lost everything. The task of helping out has been huge, as has the cost, and therein lies the problem. With so many major event to respond to, FEMA has seen it’s emergency funds drain away quickly, and those funds are not infinite. The most recent figures give FEMA somewhere around $800 million left in its budget. That’s not pocket change, but when you look at the damage Irene has left in it’s wake, it’s an almost pitiful amount, because even current rough estimates run into the $3-4 billion range. Given the fact that many of these estimates are based only on what has been directly observed, and the fact that in many spots, officials haven’t even been able to get in and find out just how bad things really are, it is unlikely that those figures are going to go down.

There has been an effort to get FEMA supplemental funds, and that story is what I write about. The funding itself is nearly insignificant given the damage we already know of, roughly $1 billion. If the small size of the increase in funding weren’t enough (and given that this year still has four months yet to go, part of which is the peak for the hurricane season) that small amount finds itself tied up in Washington’s current fixation of “balanced” budgets. You see, the current increase comes from the House, where the “Tea Party” has written language into the bill demanding that, in order to fund this increase in emergency funding, offsetting cuts must be made in other federal programs first. Which programs, they are unwilling to commit themselves to for fear (I think) of facing a backlash from the victims of these natural disasters.

That their feet should be held firmly to the fire for even suggesting such an insane act goes without saying. Conservatives love to liken the federal budget to a family budget, but I doubt they’ll use that particular simile in this case. After all, how many families would worry about where to find the money to pay for a sick child before deciding to seek treatment? There are some things you pay for, then figure out how to find the money, that’s why we call them “emergencies”.

Holding help to people who have suffered through a natural disaster hostage to ideological ideals is just plain wrong, and the “Tea Party”, plus it’s allies in Congress, should be ashamed of themselves for doing so. This is a nation that looks out for it’s own, or it should be. By demanding cuts before any funds go out to help people who are often without even the basics of life, these people show themselves to be not only heartless, but blind to anything but their own agenda. Hopefully people will remember these shameful actions come 2012.

(addendum: as of tonight, estimates are that Hurricane Irene has caused over $12 billion in damages, lifting it into the ranks of the most destructive storms in history. Thanks for watching our backs on the economic front, Eric Cantor, nice to know money and ideology come before people.)

Living in the Land of Unreason

August 26, 2011

Last year, a small college in Indiana made a decision to change it’s traditions. You see, through it’s history, Goshen College, a small college founded by the Mennonites, had never played the national anthem at it’s sporting events. So when they decided to start playing an instrumental version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, it was something of a shift for them, a shift that, it turned out, did not go down well. After a year’s worth of playing, the school had heard from many sources. The student body spoke up and gave it’s opinion. The alumni of the school also voiced their opinion. The input wasn’t unanimous, but the voices saying that the school should not have changed it’s traditions were much louder than those who thought the playing of the national anthem was something the school should be doing. The objections to “The Star-Spangled Banner” was simple and specific: it describes a battle, and the Mennonite faith is one based on pacifism. By playing a song that glorified a battle, it was felt the school was going against it’s deepest religious traditions. The school did feel that a song that spoke of pride in our nation was not out of place before sports events, so the decision was made to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” with “America the Beautiful”.

All of this would amount to pretty much next-to-nothing in a world where reason prevailed. Unfortunately, we live in modern America, and as soon as the decision was announced, the conservative wing of American politics cranked up it’s venom machinery. I first read of this whole story in a story (which I didn’t bookmark and can no long find) on Yahoo. Like most online outlets, the story had an attached comments section, and the pure hatred and malice that was expressed by people on the Right was a shock even to myself, who’d seen it many times. All the traditional insults, “traitors” “anti-American”, “PC ‘liberals’”, you name it, it was there, along with much far worse. In their minds, this was an assault on “American values” and another sign of “what’s wrong with this country”.

But how is that so?

A group listened to it’s members, and the majority’s opinion was heard. That opinion was that the group’s religious beliefs should not be shunted aside to please others. So democracy, the will of the majority, standing up for one’s principles and beliefs, all these things are now “un-American”?

When a group can condemn another group for upholding the ideals it professes to hold dear, what does that say of us? Have we, as a nation, become so polarized, so set in our ideas of “Right” and “Wrong” that we can’t see when opinion leads people to stray into the absurd? If it has, then democracy, that most basic of our tenets, is dead, and it will have been killed by those who claim to hold it most dear.

Does anyone else see the irony in all this?

How things are growing.

August 24, 2011

A while back, I wrote about my latest experiment in gardening, using bags of compost as containers. As of yesterday, the pepper plant had one fair-sized pepper on it and was going through another burst of flowering. The tomato, after a very long period of time during which I was sure it would never do more than flower, now proudly boasts two small (as in smaller than a quarter across) tomatoes. It too is flowering, but not nearly as intensely as the pepper plant.
As for the garlic I planted, it’s done already, having produced no new bulbs and having shown no signs of flowering either.
So, how much will I get off of my plants? Guess you’ll know when I do!

Paying a visit to the ‘old neighborhood’

August 12, 2011

A couple of decades ago, one of the things I loved to do was go out at night and take photos of the night sky. I actually got started doing this for several reasons. Comet Halley was one of them. When it made it’s last appearance in the 1980’s, it was predicted to be one of the brighter of it’s many visits to the vicinity of Earth. Another was my interest in space and astronomy in general. Back then, I was reading and writing about space and space exploration a lot. So it seemed a natural extension to begin paying attention the stars in the sky. Last, but far from least, the images I captured, primitive as they were, had a beauty to them that is hard to describe. There is no secret to how to capture a night sky image, you just need a camera that will allow you to open the shutter for an extended period of time so the film can gather the maximum amount of light possible. The fact that I used “film” should tell you that I’m not lying about how long ago this was. Back then, the few CCD cameras that existed were the property of either the government or some of the high-end educational institutes. Of course, it was no where near as easy as I describe it. For one thing, keeping the shutter open required some sort of mechanism to to both open and close it without causing the camera to shake or move in any way. Most decent SLR camera had a “manual” setting, which when engaged, caused the shutter to remain open for as long as the shutter release button was kept depressed. Of course, you couldn’t just hold your finger on it, because no human is completely still all the time. So trying to hold your finger on the button would cause the camera to shake enough that what you’d end up was a lot of strange-looking squiggles on a dark background. A better route was to use what was called a shutter release cable, which screwed into a small opening in the center of the shutter button. Once in place, you just pressed a button on the end of the cable and the shutter opened. A second, concentric button could then be released whenever you were done with the exposure, releasing the button and closing the shutter. Now, because as I said earlier, you shake all the time, you could not actually hold your camera. No, to take night sky images, you needed a tripod that was strong enough to take your camera (plus the weight of any telephoto lenses you might add to get more detail out of an area you were imaging), and stable enough to not shake if the wind happens to start blowing. I had all this, but to really, really get good images, you needed to be able to track the stars as they slowly move across the sky. This requires what is known as a sidereal drive, and it was both expensive and in no way a snap to set up properly. Not being graced with a ton of money even then (and not being sure I could ever learn to properly adjust the drive so it could function as it should), I opted for what is known as “unguided” photography. If you limit yourself to fairly short exposure times (less than a minute), the results aren’t all that bad. You get a view of the brighter stars on a background that is often a field of deep grayish-green (the sky doesn’t come out black because of a lot of factors that aren’t important to this missive). If you go beyond that limited time frame, what you end up with is more stars, but they’re not pinpoints, but blurred lines stretching across the background.

For really stand-out objects, things like bright comets, the Moon and the brighter stars that make up the constellations, unguided photos will give you very nice results. They’re even fairly good for some of the brighter galaxies (I was once lucky enough to capture a fine image of the Andromeda Galaxy as a fuzzy patch of light on my image, lucky because I couldn’t see it in the viewfinder!). But to capture the real beauty of the night skies, the fainter stars, nebulae and other objects, you need to go to guided photography, preferably with the camera connected to a telescope. That, coupled with way too many experiences of having a camera shop develop my film, then tell me it was “unexposed” because “it was all dark, there weren’t any images on it”, lead me to eventually abandon night sky photography. I even stopped just going out and looking at the night sky.

A bit of boredom, coupled with a chance reading of a story about the Perseid meteor shower and the forecast of a cool, clear night led me back out under the night skies. Without any film, I didn’t have the option to get my old camera out and try capturing any meteors streaking across the sky, so I decided to just go see what my eyes could see. Living in a small town, fairly well away from large cities, finding a place to go watch wasn’t hard. What you really need, more than anything else, to enjoy the night skies are dark skies. Cities, unless the power fails, are never dark enough to really bring out the splendor of the night skies. No, to see the stars, and more important, to see dimmer objects like smaller meteor, you need to be in the country, well away from any source of light. For me, such sites are within less then half an hour’s drive. So, with the meteors forecast to really start putting on a show after midnight, I decided to go to bed early and get up at midnight to go out to see what I could see.

The alarm drove me out of a sound sleep, and in that befuddled state you often are in in such a situation, I got dressed, got in my car, and headed out. It didn’t take me long to spot a place that interested me: a perfectly-black stretch of land off to one side of the road. At the next crossroad I came to, I turned onto a gravel road and started hunting for someplace in that wonderful blackness. A second, crossing gravel road came out of the headlight’s glare, and I turned again, moving deeper into the unpopulated area. At this point, I slowed down and began to watch for a ramp off the road, one the farmer’s use to access their fields. This sort of spot is ideal, as it gets you (and your car) off the road, while providing a solid base to park on so you have less chance of ending up stuck in the middle of nowhere. One presently presented itself, and because of the orientation of the road to direction I wanted to watch, I worked the car around so I was backed into it.

Now was when all the things I’d learned, and should have remembered, came flooding back to me. Usually, if I’m planning on lying on my car (a favorite and convenient place to relax), I try to remember to bring an old blanket. This both protects my car’s paint and also keeps my clothing from picking up all the crud that is usually on my car. Well, I hadn’t remembered to bring one, so I had to be careful how I moved, and know that the clothing I was wearing was going straight into the dirty cloth when I got back home. A blanket also gives you the option to pull a flap out and cover yourself if things start to get chilly. You can also take a light jacket to put on if you get cool, but like the blanket, I hadn’t thought to bring one of those either. I also hadn’t thought to grab the little clip-on bug repellent I sometimes use. The chill air kept the damage on that front down considerably, but I still managed to collect a few bites.

So how did things go? Well, you can get away from the lights of the cities, but there’s one light you can’t get away from if it’s present: the Moon. Being within a couple of days of full, the Moon was bright enough to allow me to walk around without tripping within a minute of the car lights being shut off. This limited what I could see in the way of meteors quite a lot I’m sure. As it was, I saw three meteors I’m sure of, plus another four I think I caught out of the ‘corner of my eye’ (the most light-sensitive part of the human eye) in the course of an hour’s time. By that time, it was feeling decidedly chilly to me in my tee shirt and jeans, so I decided to go home.

Wasn’t it all a waste, you ask? No. I got out under the night sky again, got familiar with the constellations once more, and remembered all the other reasons I love to be out doing things like this. While the bugs might have bitten me, I got to listen to their night songs once more. I also was reminded of just how well sounds can travel if there’s not a lot to drown them out. Out there in the countryside, I could hear trains blowing their horns, trains that were never nearer than fifteen or twenty miles. Cars on the road I’d first turned off sometimes got me to looking around, wondering when they’d come up on where I was parked. Beneath all that, lingering at the edge of perception, was the slow thump of my own heart.

They say you can’t go home again, but sometimes, you can pay a visit to someplace you loved and find you still enjoy the ‘old neighborhood’. Last night, I got a chance to do that, and I think I might just start visiting again soon, and as much as I can, because the night sky is a neighborhood we should all visit from time to time. It’s a beautiful place, so if you can, get out someplace near you and enjoy a visit.

The death of a farm house.

August 3, 2011

Back in the heyday of the Cold War, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story that he later incorporated into his marvelous “The Martian Chronicles”. The story, “There will come soft rains”, is one of the more haunting tales to come from those dark times. It describes what might best be described as a “smart house”, the only one left standing in a city devastated by a nuclear exchange, and how it attempts to function without the family that once lived in it. In the end, events in the wider world, a storm, causes a fire to start in the house, which destroys it. That story came back to me today, because of something I saw.

People who live in or grew up in the Midwest have seen what I like to think of as the prototypical “Midwest farm house”. Many of them still dot the landscape, even as the days of the small farmer become the stuff of myth. There isn’t a set layout or floor plan. There’s no prescribed style, color or even a required square footage. Some of them are single-story affairs with wings and additions that sprout in every direction. Some are two and even three story buildings that would not be out of place in a town. There is one thing they all have in common: they set, often surrounded by the outbuildings that support the workings of the farm, in the midst of the fields that make up the family farm. They stand, proud and alone, telling the world this place is home to people who work the land.

Sadly, as the size of farms has grown, so the number of farm houses has decreased. Some of them end up being bought by people from town who think they want to live the “real country life”, and don’t, in reality, know Thing One about what country life is like. While the folks may not know anything, the houses continue to do what they were built for: provide a family with a place to live, a spot to call Home.

In that way, they’re the lucky ones. Other houses, though, aren’t that lucky.

One of the routes I drive regularly has one such house. A big box of a house, two full floors with a third made out of an attic with dormers added and a nice big front porch. A large barn, corn crib, garage and the odd couple of extra buildings surrounded it, all standing on maybe a couple of acres of land festooned with mature trees made up the rest of the scene. A nice-looking house, it’s square lines and well-maintained appearance speaking to passersby of a place cared for, a family with a place.

Then there didn’t seem to be any vehicles there anymore. The lights were never on in the house at night. Then the yard began to go without being mowed for long periods of time. Then the paint began to peel and flake off. Suddenly, one of the windows was gone, broken, but someone came to cover the ugly gap up quickly, showing that at least the house wasn’t completely forgotten. It didn’t last. Shortly after the window was broken, the line connecting the house to the electric power lines was down, then coiled up and hanging on the side of the house.

The end was nigh, but you could still hope for the house, that this was just a temporary state of affairs, perhaps to keep someone from squatting in the house. It wasn’t. One day, the trees that had stood so proud were all down, not cut down, simple uprooted by heavy machinery and drug into an huge, ugly heap. Then a backhoe came and tore the porch off. Then it tore the house down and treated it with all the dignity of a pile of garbage. Why? I don’t know. I honestly don’t think I could walk up to the person running the backhoe and speak to them civilly, what with the blatant destruction they did to that house. No effort to save anything, not any flooring, windows, not even the plumbing and electrical wiring. All just shredded, shoved into a pile, then loaded into a dumpster. Will the barn and the other buildings meet a similar fate? Will another house rise on the site, one more in tune with “modern” sensibilities of how a house should look? Will the whole plot be cleared, all the buildings torn down, the foundations removed and the land turned back into farm land?

In some ways, that might be the kinder fate, for even if the family that once lived in the house, that farmed the land it stood watch over, at least then the land will continue to be farmed. Even without the house and it’s family, a farm is still a farm, even if it’s a soulless monster of a farm.

(Postscript: I passed the site again today. The house, the barn, corn crib, everything, is now just a pile of shattered wood  standing in what was once the basement to the house. The dumpster is still there, but it appears more likely that it will be used to take away whatever does not burn in what is looking increasingly like a prepared fire scene. So far, the foundations of the buildings have not been touched, though the heavy equipment needed to remove them is still on site. So dies a house, a farm, and a way of life.)