Archive for the ‘current events’ Category

Watching the defectives (or, what the Republican Party’s candidates can tell us about politics today).

January 5, 2012

I’ve been watching the Republicans as they lurch their way towards selecting a nominee to run against Obama. Neither party has what could termed a clear process for selecting the person to hold down their top spot, but this year’s Republican race seems bent on setting a record for confusion.

The most glaring example was, of course, the Cain candidacy.  With it’s silly “9-9-9” tax plan and the huckster-like way the campaign was run, it made you wonder why anyone took Cain seriously. The fact that he was on top of the field for some time appalled me to no end, but in the end, he rather publicly ‘crashed-and-burned’.

Michelle Bachmann was another candidate that, when you paid even a little attention to her and what she stood for (or claimed to stand for), you had to wonder who would support her. Again, people did and she too was at or near the top of the field. Iowa seems to have put paid to her brand of silliness, and for that, America owes Iowa a debt of gratitude.

And now, as the saying goes, for the rest of the story.

What’s left ‘in the running’ is a field that has to have anyone with any reasoning ability scratching their heads. Perry is still in, even though he finished well down the standings. That he, a man who has a record in government that is far from  stellar, is even in the race should have people wondering. Gingrich has been complaining about attacks on his record, but his record IS crap, so why should he be allowed to ignore it? Santorum is a candidate who holds himself up as some sort of paragon of virtue, yet he too has a legislative record more spotted than spotless. Huntsman seem to be an honest, if uninspired, candidate who can’t get his own party to pay attention to him.

Then you get to the last two.

Romney has a record, and he seems to be very happy to run away from it just as Gingrich is trying to. His business record shows him to be a person willing to do whatever it takes to make a profit, with no concern what his actions do to the people in those companies he “turned around”. In politics, he has been a moderate……right up to the point where he started his presidential run. Now, he’s running as a conservative, painting himself with the same brush the rest of his party seems to favor. So far, many in his own party seem to be of the opinion that they need someone, anyone, to vote for instead of Romney. His change in political philosophy and, more important, his religion, have set large portions of the Republican base against him, making it hard to see him winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of his own party, let alone the broader electorate.

Last, but far from least, there’s Paul. He made a strong showing in Iowa, coming in close behind Santorum and Romney, which should worry anyone who cares about America. Paul is the standard bearer of the far Right of his own party, espousing things like a return to the gold standard and the abolishment of multiple “wasteful” government agencies. In his world, the government is the enemy, no matter how illogical it might be for someone to run to be the head of what they claim to hate. His foreign policy might best be described as ‘pull up the draw bridges and man the walls’. He draws large crowds, crowds that are eager to express their opinions….and who seem to almost worship their candidate. Many have compared the Paul campaign to a cult, and from everything this writer has seen, the comparison seems too close to the mark.

So, what does it all mean? If I had to make one observation, it would be that the Republicans have a serious, central problem: they bill themselves as “American’s party”, yet their core constituency is far more conservative than the bulk of Americans. This leads them to make a mad dash to the Right in the primaries……followed by an equally mad dash back towards the center in an effort to win the national election. Some have carried it off with panache. Others have ignored the need to appeal to the center and failed. Many have tried to make the run, only to run into their own positions on the way back, and fail. Until the center can be embraced, by either party, the candidates will be doing this same stupid dance, and the losers will be the American people. Because no politician who is willing to shift where they stand for the sake of votes can truly be trusted, and no politician who puts their ideology ahead of the good of the nation should be allowed to hold office.


Why do we tolerate this?

December 21, 2011

Companies these days will do a lot of things to make a sales. Some of them are actually fairly honest, like cutting their profit margin in order to bring more customers in and get them to buy. Others, however, have nothing to do with honesty. Take the piece of advertising I got in the mail today……

Picture a fairly plain manila envelope, adorned with a printed legend stating that it was notification of a state program, and featuring an outline of the state. Nowhere on the front does it say anything about this being a sales advertisement. No, instead, it makes every effort to appear to be an official document mailed by the state I reside in. It’s only when you flip it over that you see the logo for the company printed quite small, that you begin to wonder “WTF???”.

Things do not get better when you open the envelope. The first things you see is a “voucher” for a “credit” to take part in the “program”. Most of the rest of the envelope’s contents are of a similar nature, and only the flier actually advertising the item being sold clues you in to the fact that this is, in fact, an effort to sell you something.

One of the documents in the envelope had an 800 number on it, and I decided to call to complain about the way this sales advertisement was formatted and worded. After a very short wait, I was put through to a real human, who tried quickly to sell me on the product. When I told him what I was really calling about, that this advertisement was very close to false advertisement, he quickly went over to the defensive, stating that it “clearly” was an advertisement.

Where I come from, we have a word for that:




The salesman is correct, his company does not cross the line into outright lying. The problem is, they avoid it not by miles, but by millimeters, and not too many of them either. I don’t doubt they’ll make some sales, nor do I doubt that the salesman I spoke to will make his sales quota for the day. What I DO wonder about is a system that allows such behavior. How far does someone go to ‘make the sale’? What does constitute ‘crossing the line’? How willing are companies to put profit ahead of all else? More important, what does it say about us, as a people, that we’re willing to tolerate this sort of thing?

Maybe it’s time we Americans did something about it. Maybe we should make a point of not doing business, at all, with companies that engage in these sorts of despicable practices. Could we, the consumers, cause companies to take notice of our concerns? The cynic in me says no, that this sort of behavior is part of human nature. The part of me that’s fuming right now says yes, we can, and even if we can’t, it’s better to try to change than to set on our asses and bitch about it.

Anyone with me?

Odd observations.

September 16, 2011

Well, after a week’s worth of work, I’m still employed, but wondering if I’ll be able to bring enough of my “A game” to really feel like I’m doing all I can. My co-workers are great, but there are times I wonder if I’m helping or just along for the ride. Not too strangely, I hate that latter idea. Guess it’s time to start paying attention and focusing on getting my mind into my new job.

Something odd happened to me today: I met someone I once knew. This is someone who I was in school with from grade school all the way through high school, and I didn’t know who the hell they were. This individual walked up to me in a store and addressed me by name, asking if I remembered them. I was at least honest enough to admit I was drawing a complete blank, and they told me who they were. Even with that, my mind couldn’t match the person standing in front of me with the person I remembered from all those years ago. The time may have dimmed my memories, or perhaps it has changed them, I don’t honestly know. We didn’t speak too long, but this person said something that disturbed me deeply: they said I looked just like I did when we were in school together. Time hasn’t been terrible to me, but to think I look like that child who knew next-to-nothing of the world worries me more than I can say.

A sad news story came my way just a short time ago: during the annual Reno Air Races, a P-51 crashed into the spectators. No details about a possible cause are available, and the initial report only spoke of 75 people injured. Outside of the pilot, there were no reports of fatalities, but given what happened, it is hard to believe that no one on the ground was killed. Reno is the last bastion of a long tradition of air racing, and it draws some of the most extreme piston-powered prop planes in the world. That accidents will happen in such a situation, where pilots are pushing their machines to the absolute limit at an extremely low altitude (around 50′ above ground level), is to be expected. Hopefully, this incident will not spell the end for Reno, and equally hopefully, those who were injured will recover fully.


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?

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.)

Posturing for the “Home Crowd”, or Republicans Fiddles while America Burns

July 15, 2011

There are times when it seems the only thing some politicians can do in the face of a crisis is find something else to think about. This was brought home very strongly to me recently by the actions of the House of Representatives.

The House is the source of much of the sound (and more than a little fury) over our budget deficit. Republicans there have all but demanded that Something Be Done, and soon! Their “something” has revolved exclusively around cutting spending on “wasteful” programs (read any program they don’t like), and, to an extent, the White House has agreed with them. Multiple meetings have been held, without any positive developments, but this isn’t what drew my attention. No, what caught my eye was how, while they cry out about how the ‘national edifice’ is in danger, they’ve been occupying their time with…….amending HR-6, the Energy Independence and Security Act.

HR-6 was originally passed in 2007. When it was originally voted out of the House and passed onto the Senate for their consideration, it garnered 264 votes in favor and 163 votes against, with 8 members not voting. 36 Republicans voted with 228 Democrats to pass the bill, and when the Senate had made it’s changes and sent the bill back to the House for final approval, 95 Republicans were part of the 314 members who voted for passage. Then-President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, and it was heralded as a major step on the road to making America more energy independent.

Like every bill these days, HR-6 had many provisions in it. One of these was a requirement that all light bulbs be at least 30% efficient, that is, that they waste no more than 70% of the power the consume in the form of heat. Given the amount of power that’s used in America to simply light things up, that makes a ton of sense. It also means the death of the “traditional” incandescent light bulb.

When he invented it, Thomas Edison was breaking new ground with his light bulb. Before then, if you wanted light, you either worked outside in sunlight, or you burned something, be it oil, kerosene, tallow, beeswax, or whatever; and used the light given off by that burning to light your work. Edison came up with the simple but brilliant idea that, if he could put a metal filament into a clear glass bulb, then suck the air out of it and apply an electrical current to it, the filament would reach a white-hot state. In that “incandescent” state, it would give off a bright white light that could be used for illumination. The problem was, what it was really doing was generating a lot of heat in order to produce a little light, with the most efficient incandescent bulbs never getting above 10% efficiency. So, if you want to cut the amount of electricity used to light things up, one of the simplest ways to do it would be to replace incandescent lights with newer, more efficient lighting technology. Simple, right?

Well, it’s simple if you’re not engaged in a bit of political posturing.

You see, in their ‘anti-Washington’ fervour, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party decided that trying to cut the amount of energy wasted on lighting things up amounted to “government interference” in Our Daily Lives. So they decided, with the government on the brink of defaulting, that the best use of the House’s time would be to debate a repeal of the provision of HR-6 setting a minimum efficiency standard for light bulbs. The provision failed to pass, but there is already talk of trying to amend a bill currently making it’s way through the House to include much the same language.

No one engaged in this asinine effort is claiming that there is no need to cut our energy consumption. Nor, for that matter, is there anyone claiming that America shouldn’t be doing everything it can to make itself more energy independent. And no one is claiming that incandescent light bulbs are somehow vital to American ‘national interests’. No, we get the same tired ‘keep government out of our private decisions’ talk we hear from the same folks who want to ban abortions, outlaw same-sex marriages, and tell us all to believe America is a “Christian nation”.

So, here’s what I wish I could say (preferably in a loud voice, from about half-an-inch from their noses) is this:

There are more important things to worry about! So get your head out of your butts and get to them!”

What do you do with an ’embarrassment of riches’?

July 2, 2011

I’ve written several times about my adventures in black raspberry growing. This last year, I gave away some of my harvest, but kept a fair amount for myself, planning (or I guess I should say hoping) to put it to use. Well, so far, it’s still were I put it at in my freezer. Which brings me to this year.

It’s been warm here where I live for several weeks now. Temperature wise, we jumped over Spring and went straight into Summer. Ninety degrees was passed early last month, which isn’t quite a record, but close enough. One sure thing about warmer weather: it gets raspberries to ripening quickly. Right about now would be what I’d consider the “normal” start to my harvest, usually a small bowl-full of berries from the ‘early’ plants. This year, that first bowl of berries came off the canes over a week ago, which means that right now is well into the peak of the harvest. Which comes back to that freezer full of frozen raspberries……

So what do you do when you’ve got berries coming off the canes, no space to store them for yourself, and you know that you never, ever want to eat too many berries at one time? You start scrounging around for folks to give them to, that’s what!

The neighbors (outside of a couple that are on vacation) have already had me at their door, bowl in hand, offering them a portion of my current bounty. The extended family is slowly but surely being worked through. After them, though, I think I might be in trouble. There are a few friends I have who live near enough to me to make the trip to give berries away not too big a drain on my gas tank, but a lot more of them live long distances from me. I’d love to see these berries enjoyed by someone, but I don’t have the money to spend to drive out as far as some of these folks live and give them away. As many of them are in a similar boat as far as I am on spending money, it’s not likely they’ll be driving here to get some free raspberries, no matter how good they are.

So, what do I do?

I’ll have to figure that one out, but sometimes, an embarrassment of riches is a hell of a thing to have!

Grow, grow, grow!

June 23, 2011

Last year, I launched into an experimental garden with my potato crop derived from a few sprouted spuds. If you read this blog, you’ll know the results were somewhat less than great. With that in mind, when I got the urge to garden again this year, I decided it might be a good idea if I gave my small garden plot a rest to (hopefully) regain some of it’s fertility.

So, with that decision out of the way, I was left with two possible courses of action:

Find a section of the lawn I could turn and use for planting, or

Find some sort of containerized gardening solution.

Having past experience with going from lawn to garden, I knew this meant a lot of work and the problem of a bare spot after I decided to move my garden. So, container gardening it is!

I know some folks who have used those hanging plant containers, and they all report that while they look odd (and are occasionally cumbersome to get planted), they’re very effective at producing healthy plants and fairly good harvests. The problem, of course, is cost. Most of the hanging planters come without any dirt, so you have to pay for both the planter, plus whatever you use to fill them, be it bagged topsoil, compost or anything else. On my budget, cost is Factor #1, so the less costly a solution is, the better I like it. This lead me back to the tried-and-true system of planting garden plants directly in a bag of whatever soil/medium I was going to use. A bit of shopping around turned up the cheapest bags of suitable planting medium, specifically composted cow manure, at the local Wal-Marts (yes, I know, I’m no big fan of theirs either). Given the space I was going to have available to me (the corner of the same porch last year’s potatoes had grown next to), I figured that I would have room for two, perhaps three bags. Rather than try to squeeze the maximum number of plants into the space and risk them shading each other too much, I opted for only two bags. What to grow was a lot easier: tomatoes and bell peppers. Here I caught a break: the local grocery store was selling garden plants, and not only did theirs look better than those on offer at Wal-Marts, but they were offering heirloom plants that were priced cheaper than the Wal-Marts ‘specials’ too.

In the end, I chose an heirloom tomato plant, a “Brandywine”, and a more modern “Valencia Orange” hybrid pepper plant. As with a lot of things, once the decisions were made, Fate stepped in to have it’s say. In this case, it happened that while I was unloading the bagged compost, I managed to snag one of the bags along the edge and tear it. The usual approach when doing this sort of approach is to lay the bags down flat, just as they were stacked where you bought them, and open the upper surface to allow the plant to be planted. With an opening already in the bag, it wasn’t a hard decision to make to turn the torn bag on it’s side and just expand the opening already there. Well, that was the theory at least. You see, what with being stacked up and all, the compost inside the bags gets pretty well compressed. That, in turn, means that what you’ve got inside the bag is sometimes less like garden soil and more like cheaply-made concrete. In my case, it wasn’t quite that extreme, but it definitely took a good deal of work to break up the compost into something that could be planted in without leaving it in huge chunks. The resulting bag was much thicker than it would have been, and seeing as how tomatoes like a good, deep bed to grow into, the place to plant my “Brandywine” was decided. After it was in, the other bag for the “Valencia Orange” was slit open and the compost inside it broken up in the immediate area under the opening. Getting it planted took even less time than the tomato had (the bag wasn’t nearly as neatly opened or controllable on the tomato bag) and I was done. Plants planted, garden ready to start growing.

Or so I thought.

Like last year, things happened that gave me options I hadn’t thought of before. In this case, it was some garlic I’d bought. I needed some fresh to season a dish, but I didn’t need the whole clove. So I put the rest aside, thinking that it would be safe to leave it lying around. No, it wasn’t. In this case, the weather took a hand in making the decision for me. After a couple of says when the local temps shot suddenly into the mid-80’s, I happened to look at my left-over garlic and found that almost all of it was sprouting. When I took the clove apart, I found six segments had sprouted. I knew these would not last long, and with nothing to use them in, I decided to do what I did last year: plant them. As a general rule, garlic like to be planted in cooler weather, but with the only other choice being throwing the sprouted segments out, I figured I had nothing to loose. Because of the way the bags were lying, the bag holding the pepper plant had more space, so it drew one segment at each corner of the bag. The tomato bag took the other two, one at each end. That was about three weeks ago.

Right now, the garlic is growing like a proverbial weed, with the tops already six or more inches tall. Whether they’ll form cloves or just go to seed is something I’ll find out in the next month or so. Both of the ‘non-volunteer’ plants are doing well, with strong growth on both plants. The pepper has already flowered twice without showing any signs of fruit forming, but it’s early in the season, so I’m not discouraged. One thing I had not thought of, and that I’ll have to tackle soon, is how to support the tomato plant. “Brandywine”, like many other heirloom tomatoes, has a tendency to grow big and grow fast. Mine is already showing signs of wanting to take off in it’s own direction, so some sort of support to keep it upright is going to be a necessity soon. What that support will be, well, I guess you’ll find out shortly after I do.

I hope anyone who reads this will give serious thought to growing something for themselves. It’s getting a bit late to be planting things like tomatoes and peppers, but not too late if you have a long warm season. There’s also plenty of time, even in the shortest of warm seasons, to grow things like lettuce and other salad greens. A bag container is a good solution for these sorts of crops too, and between the satisfaction of ‘growing your own’, the savings on your grocery bill and the generally better quality of crops you grow yourself, it’s a good thing to do. So give it a whirl.