Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Here we go again - "Blame Canada!"

I was all set to write a brief little ditty about those sexy new PETA postage stamps ("Pamela Anderson AND Bob Barker? Consider my Holidaze shopping done, baby). Then I unfolded my clutch of daily dead tree to see a serious looking banner headline. "Canada Kept Salmon Threat Secret" For those just now checking in, I got hooked by that story breakthrough last month while looking at other viruses attacking specific agribusinesses with similarly devastating effects. The prospect of this salmon-targeting disease (named Infectious Salmon Anemia or "ISA") packed the added punch of possibly making the leap from farmed salmon populations to the much more valuable and previously safe-seeming wild salmon populations. Today's headline alludes to the fact that Canadian researchers have actually known about ISA being in wild salmon for a decade. One pesky research fellow found it present in tested fish back in 2002. The good news is that it may be a harmless natural variation of ISA that's always been out there. Where the story gets sexy is when the push to publish the findings maybe encountered the faint possibility that Canada's regulatory bureaucracy kept it hidden. This small tempest must nonetheless be swirling around the fishing taverns and coffeeshops today. Yarrr! For me, the takeaway jibes with my experience that emerging viral threats to an agribusiness leave those farmers feeling almost totally powerless. The teachable moment being that if researchers and bureaucrats dink around with that research because of some unseen benefit for keeping things silent...well, that's just a disservice to everyone.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thinking about Newt? Ow, that hurts.

Newt Gingrich has me thinking about my ancestry. The stepping off point for that bit of randomness was his performance in last week's GOP debate on CNN. I watched it while in Wisconsin, where my family's roots were firmly set over 130 years ago thanks to the Homestead Act. All those people who live perfectly good lives without ever manifesting the troubling signs of political obsessive disorder surely missed it. Specifically, I'm pointing at when Newt waded into unusual waters for a GOP candidate by responding to a question about immigration with a measured embrace of amnesty for non-citizens. For my almost entirely Scandinavian family, it brought up something I now find fascinating that I'd never given much thought. I'm now aware that one of my grandmothers never became a citizen. It just wasn't that big of a deal way back when - especially since women couldn't vote prior to 1920. To up the ante of weirdness, I'm now focused upon the fact that the trippy little country she came from in Scandinavia ceased to exist in the late 1930s. Blame the Soviets, I think. Her husband naturalized, which was the norm to afford the benefits of citizenship to the whole family. Her kids were all born here. She lived into her 90s, and died in the 1980s surrounded by family and property. But in terms of our modern view of citizenship, she was effectively a woman without a country for most of her life. I'm still sussing this all out. I can't even find the country she came from listed anywhere to make sense of what citizenship she might have been able to claim. Say what you will about Newt. Loudly. I, for one, have never been a fan. Even though he married a former small-town girl from Sconnie on his third try at, um, lifelong party affiliation. But the guy's politics inspired me to take a new look at my own past. Now if you'll excuse me, I think my irony bladder just exploded.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Sconnie, post scriptum

I'm back home after a weeklong visit to the land of deer hunting and Packer loving. The things I saw in - or, rather, near - the woods opened the memory gates in ways grand and teeny tiny. One of my everyday urban activities that I brought with me was to go out running in the mornings, before the sun had risen. One time along my daily route, I saw a bald eagle perched in the highest branches of a tree right next to the prevailing county highway in my childhood neighborhood. Old Glorious swiveled her head to look down at me, passing a brief judgment before returning to all things otherwise more interesting far above the forest line. Another day, what could have only been a bat flew directly into me, striking the iPod earbud anchored in my right ear. As of now I see no need for rabies shots since not a mark was made on anything other than my previous sense of species superiority. My last morning conjured a memory like a lightning strike of the first season I was counted among the ranks of official hunterdom. I passed by the spot where I'd seen a truly majestic buck three decades ago. I told that story of the deer's nonplussed and safe run across an open field to my daughter as we drove back to the Twin Cities on our way out of the Northwoods. There were copious other lessons learned or at least hinted at during the past week - some for this book, others just for the sake of what might be humility. For example, I struggled with how to best cook a surprisingly decent hunk of fresh bear loin given to us by a family friend to add to our Thanksgiving bounty. No, it tasted nothing like chicken. The whole visit went something like that. Amidst nearly constant reminders to grasp anew things I've long since forgotten. Being reminded of that is one of the things I'm humbly thankful for this year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The ol' Swedish girl's still holding in there. Barely...

No visit to my childhood home would be complete without checking on the status of our Swedish barn (built in 1890). She's still got that aching lean, as if the clock stopped just before she let go. The romantic in me hopes it stays that way forever. The realist, however, just loves to look. And shoot more pics.

A bit of freezing rain before some November snow can give you this.

Still as amber in the woods.

Still as amber in the woods. by emaggie
Still as amber in the woods., a photo by emaggie on Flickr.

If you were out walking through the mix, every jostled branch would dump its store down your back. Undisturbed, it's majestic.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Back in the hunt. But only vicariously.

The time has come for another return to my actual and figurative homeland - northern Wisconsin. As so often happens this time of year, the visit is measured in the number of Green Bay Packer games I'll be there to watch in their natural environment (two - Sunday's Battle of the Bays AND the more awesome TurkeyDaze game versus the slumping but still worrisome Lions). However, the other significant measure of this time of year for so many native Wisconsinites is (gun) deer hunting season. I don't hunt. But I grew up doing so. That season starts tomorrow. While it only goes on for nine days, I argue that it is the cultural epicenter of each Fall heading toward Winter in Wisconsin. Aside from any given gameday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay or at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. In terms of hunting, I would argue that the act itself is actually secondary. Where the lessons are re-learned annually is clustered around the hunting cabins and country bars, where awareness of full-on winter's arrival and the concept of putting away some venison for that season drives so many into the woods. Plenty of folks (who unlike me) still hunt every year might tweak my sentimental analysis. That's certainly their right. Still, I grew up in it. And I'll call it as I see it. Bear in mind, I went through the DNR's hunter safety course in 7th Grade like almost all of the other boys in the area who couldn't wait to get out in the woods with their families. I walked those woods every year until I went off to college. At it's best, that was the time to reorient with the woods that would otherwise be largely unseen throughout the seasons. I was born into a fortunate group of hunters. We had land to hunt on. And no matter what people feel they know about the hunting, I understand the enduring appeal of going back to that land whenever possible. It will be vicariously interesting to be back there at this time - my first Thanksgiving week visit to the Northwoods in what seems like a decade. Almost everyone I know who's still back there will be hunting. While the emergence of a growing wolf population (and even a few rumored cougars) has scared off much of the deer population, I look forward to the inevitable gossip and speculation about how the woods look and how the hunt is going. I'll still get out there in the early mornings, wearing a blaze orange vest when I go running. Along many of those same country roads that we would disembark from back in the days of my own full-fledged participation in the culture. Wish me luck. Don't worry. It's safe out there. And fascinating.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Next up, PETA uncovers the oppressive code hidden in "Pitfall"

PETA consistently surprises me with the absurd angles they take on animal rights issues. I'll be the first to say that their sense of the ridiculous is often clever. Even if they consistently perpetuate completely false claims. Their latest PR assault comes from a direction few could have seen coming. This time out, PETA takes on Nintendo. Whether or not anyone who grew up playing Super Mario realizes it, there's an opportunity for activism hidden in that there code. Specifically, the obscure, magic Tanooki cloak that showed up in Super Mario 3. Admittedly, I'm not well versed in the game. I'll date myself by admitting that I'm more Atari 2600 than Nintendo. Still, PETA's produced an especially lame, not at all timely web-based game to play on their website. Spoiler alert - Tanooki tries to turn the tables on Mario. I've played it. Gamers surely won't. Maybe if they go old school and stand up for the rights of those misunderstood Invaders from Space, I'll see past wrongs worth being righted. But I'm not holding my breath on that one.

High-speed trains and Buicks - more alike than we realize.

Two stories regarding China once again caught my eye. Funny how that happens after a visit when you fall under the spell of a place, isn't it?

First up, the high speed rail system between Beijing and Shanghai is supposedly all good to go once again. Whether or not anything has been re-engineered following the collision that killed 43 people back in July is an open question. For a nation that plans to build thousands of miles of new high-speed track by 2015, getting that system back on track has to be a nerve-wracking story for a whole lot of people.

Secondly, the explosion in car sales in China is unavoidable if you just look around the streets there. Oops, maybe that's a crude word choice to follow up a train crash story. Still, the Chinese love their cars. And they also apparently love to categorize those newly-coveted cars. A Mercedes, apparently, equals an old fart. An Audi means "bureaucrat", so just get the hell out of the way if you see one. I'm sure there are others - the handful of ridiculous Lotuses and Lambourghinis I saw speeding around the cities certainly indicate a very particular kind dickish customer. But where I was surprised in this piece was in the news that one of the hottest luxury car lines in China is actually the Buick - the oldest American car maker, and one that's recently even been dissed by GM's execs. Nevermind that Buick is also partly the namesake (derived from a favorite Midwestern cliche') of my prior blog. Buick's back, baby. At least on the streets of Beijing. I don't know why, but that makes me happy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Updates and innovations - Ai Weiwei, DRCs, and a Kindle "eureka!" moment

Expect more check-backs like this from time to time:

- I've written about my interest in the case of Ai Weiwei in China. I'm certainly not alone. Enough donations have flooded in (nearly $1.4M) that an appeal of his ridiculous, intimidating tax bill ($2.4M) should be possible. Not surprisingly, the complexity of Chinese bureaucracy makes things far from transparent and new roadblocks have emerged. I'm still fascinated by this artist and the emerging showdown between his hilariously named design firm (Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.) and the Government. If you don't see it elsewhere, please expect that I will keep you posted when things catch my eye as the plot continues to thicken.
- I've gotten my first digital review copy (DRC) for a book coming out in January. Big shout out to Edelweiss (a preview and catalog service operated by Above the Treeline) for seeing fit to tag me as...I don't know what. A book reviewer? Book blogger, maybe. Writer with way too many distractions? All of the above, in fits and starts. Regardless, my first effort in this realm of read/absorb/review will wrap back around (at least somewhat) on the larger canvas I'm working on. I promise.
-As an important aside, my Kindle has just knocked my proverbial socks off. The struggle for a coexistence between the digital and the dead tree in publishing is a well-worn, expanding trope. But when these tools aid in the access to books that can then benefit both sides of that divide, the results are pretty darn nifty.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Getting to know the NASS, while prepping to say goodbye.

I've been digging into agricultural stats recently. Because I know how to party. Under the auspices of such raging, I found something that disturbs me. As with too many things, this change is due to short-sighted budgetary politics. As such, I'm sure no one in this Congress is going to do anything to fix it.

Since as far back as 1863, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has tracked and estimated production numbers for a wide array of agribusinesses. Basically, the USDA surveys the amount of crops and animals raised in the U.S. I'll imperfectly compare this tradition of gathering and reporting stats with the way the NCAA supposedly tracks and governs a whole wide world of sports. Even though everyone focuses on football and basketball because they generate the overwhelming majority of cash. When it comes to what's produced by agribusinesses in the U.S., cows and corn are essentially football and basketball. But don't forget about goats, sheep, honey, mink, catfish - the list of agribusinesses surveyed in the U.S. is diverse, fascinating and occasionally controversial. These categories may provide the anecdotal equivalents of baseball, soccer, gymnastics, fencing, crew and any other redheaded stepchildren sports still kept under the watchful eye of the NCAA. They'll never get the same exposure or impact, but what if no one bothered watching out for them at all? I'd apply that same question for those agribusinesses that will no longer be covered by these annual inventories. Which begs the larger question - what's the cost savings of eliminating all these statistical measures used to estimate what's produced in the U.S.? A massively underwhelming $11M buckaroos, annually. Even though the folks that do this work - the National Agriculture Statistics Survey - hail from the sort of agency even good ol' boys like Rick Perry would probably deem worthy of saving.

I expect no champions to arise in praise of this USDA program. Which is a pretty sad state of affairs for a nation built on farms that certainly didn't just raise cows or corn. Maybe we are so fully diluted and withdrawn from the nation's agricultural roots that we no longer care about what those still in the business of raising things actually do. Still, we're willing to just quit tracking what happens in these and so many other categories of American endeavor for a measly $11M? Lame.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Keeping an eye on China's "hooligan" artists

One probably inevitable takeaway from my recent trip to China is the desire to know how artists there deal with censorship. Keeping tabs on that could become a full time job. I'm sure there are many, many others doing a much better job at it than I ever could. But as a casual observer with a newly calibrated radar when it comes to China, I'm fascinated by two stories. One ongoing, one recently brought to my attention. Both showed up in the NYTimes yesterday. The ongoing and quite famous one is the struggle of Ai Weiwei - the larger than life multiform artist who's bearing the brunt of the Chinese government's crackdown on expression that runs afoul of their official interests. Weiwei's been jailed, his studios have been raided, and now he's facing a massive tax penalty meant to scare him. Or much worse. The latest update for Weiwei showed how the public is stepping up - often anonymously - to help him pay the $2.4M tax bill that was plopped on him after being released from a murky, intimidating stint in jail. New developments seem to come every day with regard to Weiwei's plight. Reporting on him is a cottage industry for journalists and activists world wide. But the other piece on yesterday's front page really peeled back the layers on what writers confront when they try to write original work in China. If you're even slightly interested in the massive expansion of publishing in China, this piece is an introduction with more context than I've seen on this subject. The writer Murong Xuecun sounds like a old school Beat writer with huge, ultra-modern exposure. He's swimming against a current that we can't even imagine here. Utterly amazing reporting. A must read for anyone who ever hopes to sell a single copy of any book in China. Myself included.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Looking at DRCs

I know this post's title is vague. At best. So please excuse me for going a bit "meta" in my introduction of what it means and why I bring it up.

I've not been operating here specifically as a "book blogger". That's a category of reviewer who is increasingly important to the reading and writing communities found via the web. That's not been my gig, although I've offered plenty of reviews elsewhere in the past. But I'm now modifying my plans to include reviewing "digital review copies" (DRCs) of new books. DRCs are advance copies, generally meant for reading months in advance of a book's upcoming release. DRCs aren't exactly lying around out there in the ether - I need to request access and do so with a purpose. Basically, this is how booksellers and certain enterprising bloggers keep an eye out for books they then read and - waa-lah! - review for smartypants readers such as you. Maybe before they're even out there in the bookstores. The rub being that I'm assuming bloggers need an established record of doing so to get access to these DRCs. A bit of a Catch-22, I would be say. Cyclical enough for you? Don't worry - my work on that front's all done now. Like one of those surreptitious immunization shots I imagine doctors gave back in the day when they rarely even put down their cigarettes in the exam office. Now everything's so carefully proscribed and above board. It probably hurts the kid more to know what's coming. But that's a thought to belabor another day.

Check back for book reviews on things that are new and interesting. I'll always identify them as such. I've even got my first request in. Expect things generally related to "Pelting Out" and what I'm writing there. Whatever that may be. Wink wink.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Trying to get through the lobby

If I got called on for one question of Herman Cain, he'd be psyched. Because it wouldn't be anything like what's getting thrown his way currently. My question would be one that would require no evasion and I suspect the answer would be interesting to people across the political spectrum. I'd ask about something that relates directly to his background, yet it also deals with an issue I'm beginning to wrassle. Here goes - what does a lobbyist actually do? I realize that makes me sound like I'm in elementary school. But it is for me an essential logic puzzle that just doesn't get asked enough. After all, I think one of the most misused and misunderstood terms in modern American life is "lobbying". So the idea of a "lobbyist" - whether for restaurants or agribusiness or toxic waste disposal - is the sort of Rorschach test definition that I'd love to hear offered. By Mr. Cain or any professional who did or does the job. Because the layers of that onion don't come off cleanly or in a manner that makes much sense. For example, say a particular concern pays you (the lobbyist) some money (such as $40K in 2010). It's assumed you do something for them. Obviously. Whatever that something might be, you (still lobbying) then do more work for them (now let's say $20K in 2011). Easy peasy. Except...who measures what and how? Once again, really basic stuff. I'm sure the Herminator could help me out there. Or maybe someone less, um, exposed at the moment. Whatever the angle through the lobby, my door is always open.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Where the Wild Things aren't always that wild

One of the typical sights on my early morning runs around Seattle is that of urban raccoons. These city critters are nothing like the truly wild cousins I grew up seeing on our farm. There we knew raccoons brought with them distemper and other pesky ailments that often enough made the infectious leap over to other animals. When they were infected, they could be nasty. Otherwise, they'd generally disappear like smoke. The city version of this critter is an altogether evolved version of nuisance. Half the time I expect them to be wearing a headlamp and/or carrying cutlery. At least they also usually scamper off when I happen upon them. I couldn't help but notice an attitude shift in two of these masked bandits in a face to face to face bit of randomness earlier this morning. These suckers wouldn't budge when I clomped on by. They even seemed to weigh and measure me. The only thing missing was one of them stroking his or her chin devilishly. A frozen frame reaction surely isn't unheard of when it comes to such encounters. Not like this, though. These winter-fattened and fully-wooly varmits stood their ground. Maybe they were suffering from a sort of diabetic coma due to the discarded bushels of Halloween candy I imagine they're rooting around in. Or maybe they've taken to heart yet another "La Nina" year weather forecast for the Northwest. If so, they've got wetter, wilier issues to worry about than some dood running by more focused upon his iPod than any intention of harming them. Still, is it wrong to wish these nasty ringtails were at least a little more country and a little less rock 'n roll? Sorry, Donny and Marie - just trying to make something of a convoluted point here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Digging into something entirely different

I've stepped momentarily aside from the issues of the past month (researching militant activism) and questions about where that leads or doesn't (the sharply double-edged sword of those involved seeking media coverage). Call it a breather or a chance to shun the blinders I've slipped on. More, totally new freakshows lie ahead - such as trying to get someone from a certain controversial Midwestern Governor's office to lower the drawbridge for me to cross. But those are other stories for other days. However, this moment's lovely not-at-all left field distraction is a new book that arrived today. Not my typical fare, but something I'm nonetheless using as an introduction to days of yore. Exploring Fort Vancouver (edited by Douglas C. Wilson and Theresa E. Langford) gives an introduction to what was the biggest West Coast outpost in the early 19th Century. Credit that toehold somewhat to the old Hudson's Bay Company. As this book lays it down, site specific history is much more complex than just quoting dates and names. Plus it's just a lovely little book. I haven't yet ventured to the actual National Historic Site in what is now Vancouver, Washington. I will someday soon. Until then, this book is a glossy time capsule escape. Along with being a reminder of the loving work too often ignored but still being done by archaeologists and historians. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Still rolling with this thought

At the risk of sounding totally random and confusing to those tenuously paying attention to what's going on here, a little vignette's been playing over and over again in my brain for nearly a week. It involves how I almost lost my wedding ring last week in a grocery store parking lot in western Iowa. Yup - the sucker flew off my cold ring finger and went flying as I grabbed for the door handle on my rental car.  Aside from the memorably odd physicality encapsulated in that moment - fumbling around on the ground trying to tease out how far the ring had flown given the sounds it made once it hit the pavement - a powerful metaphor is still just out of my grasp. Somewhere in this is the lesson of how a trip with one focused purpose can instead become another altogether different preoccupation. Maybe the point is how I drove around Iowa looking for one thing and ended up thinking about something related but altogether different. I'm really glad I found my ring. Now I can talk about it with a joke and a colorful vignette. Still, what if I'd left this meaningful piece of me behind there? Could I ever think of Sioux City as just another flyover spot on the American map? And what about others who lose something in just such a random place, with equal (or greater) unintended impact? Obviously, some thoughts roll on to points still unforeseen. I'll let y'all know when I figure out where it comes to rest.