Friday, June 29, 2007
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Red State Welfare
by Timothy Egan
New York Times: June 28, 2007
Drive across the empty reaches of the Great Plains, from the lost promise of Valentine, Neb., to the shadowless side roads into Sunray, Tex., and what you see is a land that has lost its purpose. Many of the towns set in this infinity of flat have a listless look, with shuttered main streets and schools given over to the grave.
With upwards of $20 billion a year in federal payments going to a select few in farm country, you would think that these troubled counties would have a more vigorous pulse. After all, corn and wheat prices are at record highs, and big manses here and there, with Hummers in limestone driveways, indicate that somebody is doing well.
It would be one thing if the despair and disparity in farm country were the sole products of history, if time had simply passed it all by. But it comes as a jolt to realize that government policy is much to blame.
The Red State welfare program, also known as the farm subsidy system, showers most of its tax dollars on the richest farmers, often people with no dirt under their fingernails, at the expense of everybody else trying to work the land. Like urban welfare before reform, agriculture subsidies reward those who can work the system — farming the government, as they call it around the diner.
And when you dare ask about the farmer in Colorado who received more than $2 million in handouts, or all those absentee landowners collecting their $150,000 government checks in gilded urban ZIP codes, the reaction is: it’s none of your business.
Thus, the American Farm Bureau, which represents some of the biggest corporate welfare recipients, is terrified that a motley mix of peasants are now at the door with pitchforks. On their Web page, the bureau warns members that “forces outside of agriculture” are demanding change. The audacity! The farm bureau’s attitude to the taxpayer is: just write the check and shut up.
Every five years or so Congress drafts a farm bill. The last farm bill was a masterpiece of Soviet-style goals and giveaways signed by that faux-rancher who likes to show off his cowboy boots, President Bush.
This massive piece of legislation could be a blueprint for rural America. But it has become a spoils system where the congressmen-turned-lobbyists make sure that their clients get triple-figure checks for growing things that the nation already has in surplus.
This year, things are different. It’s not their farm bill anymore. It is quickly becoming a food bill, a design for the American diet, possibly the worst in the industrial world. Budget hawks, nutritionists, small farmers and big farmers who grow fruits and vegetables without subsidies, alternative energy advocates and rural renaissance types — all are ready to do battle over the new plan.
The farm bill sets the rules for the American food system and helps to subsidize obesity. It rewards growers of big commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat — the foundation of our junk food nation. So, a bag of highly processed orange puff balls with no nutritional value is cheaper than a tomato or a peach. Wonder why.
The reformists, by and large, are not trying to get in on the gravy train. They want to revitalize rural America, to encourage farmers’ markets, contribute to environmental health and to make it easier for poor people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
In Congress, Jeff Flake, a maverick Republican from Arizona who angered party leaders by taking on earmarks, and Ron Kind, a Democrat who represents dairy country in Wisconsin, are leading the charge. There is likely to be a huge fight later this summer, because the old guard who protect the farm lobby are embedded deep in the early-stage committees.
Once you step into this stuff, it’s hard to pull away. I worked a summer on a dairy farm, hauling hay, shoveling manure and taking the occasional dead calf out for burial. The farmer lady offered to pay me with a cow or a check; I took the money.
Thanks to the Environmental Working Group, we know exactly how much money every subsidized farmer is getting in every county. The group’s database shows that just 1 percent of all farmers receive about 17 percent of the payments — averaging $377,484 per person, over three years.
That’s a nice handout for these stalwarts of Red State values, prompting two conclusions: the system is broken, and I should have held onto my cow.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Back from what turned into a 4-day "vacation" at the shore! I didn't even know I was going anywhere until Thursday, and then it was "well, why don't we?" and "well, Hell, you bet!" and so we left Friday morning intending to come back Monday, but stayed 'till today. It's hot as blazes here, I've got 347 emails in my "inbox", a pile of newspapers to catch up on, and Dick Cheney's latest antics to digest, but just a few observations from my weekend On the Beach, and the trip to and from-
-Americans are a rude, overweight people, and we drive badly.
-4 days away from all newspapers, television, radio and internet is much more restful than it should be.
-I see that Bush is still in charge, so I guess that "Magic" candle was a waste of $14.95 plus shipping. Oh well. It smelled nice.
-Lobsters remain the oddest "edibles" I've ever encountered.
-Swordfish steaks, however, done on a real-wood charcoal grill by a relative/chef who knows how to cook them, are the Food of the Gods.
-Gameboys, iPods and other electronic gizmos be damned, there is nothing more entertaining to 7 and 5-year old nephews than a whoopie cushion.
-The perfect bag of beach-books includes history, mystery and lit-racy.
-Seveteen dollars for a quart of strawberries is insane.
-6 dollars a pound for bluefish is not.
-Good friends and family make the perfect vacation.
Happy Summer, everyone!
Friday, June 22, 2007
I mentioned Salman Rushdie's 'The Satamic Verses' yesterday, and the subsequent discussion made me go look up some reading- and writing-related quotes I had sitting around. Summer is reading time, and if we're reading it, somebody must have written it, so all in all it seemed like an appropriate way to go into the first summer weekend-
"The test of a first-rate work, and a test of your sincerity in calling it a first-rate work, is that you finish it"
"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all".
-Oscar Wilde, in the Preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
"Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours".
-John Locke, "Conduct of Understanding"
"Indeed, as regards remuneration for the time to write the novel, stonebreaking would have done better".
-Anthony Trollope speaking of "The Warden"
"Your manuscript is both good and original; but what is good is not original, and what is original is not good".
"Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other fools have lent me."
Asked whether he liked books, Mark Twain said that he liked a thin book because it would steady a table, a leather volume because it would strop a razor, and a heavy book because it could be thrown at a cat.
-from "The Delights of Reading" by Otto L. Bettmann
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Summer finally rolls in this afternoon, though the weather has been summer-like for a few weeks now. A few of the heirloom tomato plants have set fruit, so there's the remote possiblity we might have garden-fresh tomatos by the 4th of July. That would make me do the little Happy Dance out on the lawn.
What an odd news week-
-Does anyone on the planet not believe New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is running for President? Does he think the "Moi? Not at all, but how nice of you to say so!" thing is cute? I was hoping he'd run as a Republican, so people could get confused about having two Mayors of New York in the same primary. That would have been almost as much fun as the time Massachusetts almost had a gubernatorial election between Democrat Edward F. King and Republican Edward J. King. It did not quite come off, because the Democrat narrowly lost a primary fight he was widely expected to win, but man, that would have been an interesting election.
-Queen Elizabeth is giving Salman Rushdie a knighthood and certain segments of the "Islamic World" (as the newspapers are wont to put it) are upset, saying that it proves the West hates Islam. I'd be a bit more sympathetic to those saying the Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" was an insult to Islam if the same folks didn't see more or less anything the West does as an insult to Islam.
-Red Sox Land is in full panic mode as our outrageous 14-game lead has been eroded away in the last few weeks. C'mon people- back at the beginning of April, if anyone had said we'd be 8 games ahead of the Yankees on the first day of Summer we'd have been ecstatic. Speaking of baseball, I see the Baltimore Orioles didn't wait for the first day of Summer to fire their first manager of the season. Sam Perlozzo is gone and apparently Joe Girardi will replace him. What's up with that? Did Joe lose a big bet or something?
Happy Summer, everyone! Let's go barbecue!!!
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
One of our favorite fellow-bloggers Mike, who has worked in a lot of places far from home, has finally returned home again, and is, for the most part, now in a scenario that will allow him to stay, most of the time, within the sight of his family, chihuahua, and lawn.
That made me start thinking about how I view travel. I like the idea of travel- it's the actuality of it that is sometimes troubling. I love airplanes, and continue to do so, but flying now leaves me cold.
Boats are fine, but here in New England you generally have to fly to get to one. The last time I did that was when I took a cruise out of Port Canaveral, Florida the same day John Glenn went up in the Space Shuttle. I took pictures from the ship, which was about as close to the launch site as any civilian got, and laughed at the signs that said "everybody- dress up in ape suits when he comes down".
That was cool. But I am no longer really cool about flying. It's not that I don't like airplanes- I think they are as cool as ever, but I also think that most pilots, especially these days, when most ex-military pilots have retired from airline service, are not as good as they used to be. Add to that the fact that the government seems to be starving the air-traffic control system, and the whole idea leaves me a bit cold.
Monday, June 18, 2007
Sunday, June 17, 2007
FRENCH INTELLECTUALS TO BE DEPLOYED TO AFGHANISTAN TO CONVINCE AL-QUAEDA OF NON-EXISTENCE OF GOD
The ground war in Afghanistan heated up yesterday when the Allies revealed plans to airdrop a platoon of crack French existentialist philosophers into the country to destroy the morale of al-Queda zealots by proving the non-existence of God.
Elements from the feared Jean-Paul Sartre Brigade, or "Black Berets", will be parachuted into the combat zones to spread doubt, despondency and existential anomie among the enemy. Hardened by numerous intellectual battles fought during their long occupation of Paris' Left Bank, their first action will be to establish a number of pavement Cafes at strategic points near the front lines. There they will drink coffee and talk animatedly about the absurd nature of life and man's lonely isolation in the Universe.
They will be accompanied by a number of heartbreakingly beautiful girlfriends who will further spread dismay by sticking their tongues in the philosophers' ears every five minutes and looking remote and unattainable to everyone else.
Their leader, Colonel Marc-Ange Belmondo, spoke yesterday of his confidence in the success of their mission. Sorbonne graduate Belmondo, a very intense and unshaven young man in a black pullover, gesticulated wildly and said,
"The al-Queda are caught in a logical fallacy of the most ridiculous kind. There is no God and I can prove it. Take your tongue out of my ear, Juliet, I am talking."
Marc-Ange plans to deliver an impassioned thesis on man's nauseating freedom of action with special reference to the work of Foucault and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. However, humanitarian agencies have been quick to condemn the operation as inhumane, pointing out that the effects of passive smoking from the Frenchmen's endless Gitanes could wreak a terrible toll on civilians in the area.
Speculation was mounting last night that Britain may also contribute to the effort by dropping Professor Stephen Hawking into Afghanistan to propagate his non-deistic theory of the creation of the universe. Other tactics to demonstrate the non-existence of God will include the dropping of leaflets pointing out the fact that Britney Spears has a new album out and Jesse Helms has not died yet. This is only one of several Psy-Ops operations to be mounted by the Allies.
Friday, June 15, 2007
I played this game last year with y'all, but it's always fun to play again.
The answers to some questions tell you a lot about a person-
Gin or vodka? [later note: I mean in your martini]
Beatles or Stones?
(and John or Paul?)
Butter or margarine?
PC or Mac?
Beach or mountains?
Sean Connery or Roger Moore?
Hardcover or paperback?
and so on.
It's always interesting to get some more input on Questions That Divide the World in Two. Jump right in- what are your answers, and what other questions tell you the most about a person?
For the record, my answers are: gin, Beatles, Paul, butter, both, beach, Sean Connery, & hardcover.
UPDATE: I dumped the regional variations, as most of them mean nothing to anyone else, and I wanted to have some room to add other people's additions to the main list.
Additions courtesy of Kaytie M. Lee:
Dog or Cat?
Prius or Hummer?
Cold or Hot? (weather, that is)
Cold or Hot? (beverages, that is)
Loft or Condo?
Cissy Strutt adds:
AFL or League?
Abbott or Costello? (no, not the funny ones)
Tassy or The Territory?
James Squire or James Boag?
Vegimite or Promite?
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
The spectacular red hills outside Kanab-
We took a day trip to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The north rim is just a few hours south of Utah, and gets about 1/10th of the traffic the south rim gets, which means there is no traffic going in, you can actually find a place to park when you get there, and you can take your beer out onto the terrace and relax. This looks Photo-shopped, but it isn't-
We took an overnight tent-camping trip to Zion and Kolub canyons. These are pics of Kolub, with my original captions-
We fly in and out of Las Vegas on our trips to Utah. This trip we had rented a fancy Jeep Wagoneer which had a thermometer on the dashboard telling us how hot it was outside. On the way back to Las Vegas we saw with delight that it was only a crisp 102 degrees, and so we took a quick side trip to very aptly named Valley of Fire-
The Valley of Fire was damned hot. It also features some spectacular rock formations. These are "beehives"-
Sunday, June 10, 2007
It's Spring, and a new crop of bumper stickers has been sighted-
Impotence...Nature's way of saying "No hard feelings,"
The proctologist called ...they found your head.
Save your breath...You'll need it to blow up your date.
Your ridiculous little opinion has been noted.
I used to have a handle on life...but it broke off.
WANTED: Meaningful overnight relationship.
Guys...just because you have one, doesn't mean you have to be one.
Some people just don't know how to drive... I call these people "Everybody But Me"
Don't like my driving? Then quit watching me.
Jesus loves you... but everyone else thinks you're an ass.
If you can read this...I can slam on my brakes and sue you.
Some people are only alive because it is illegal to shoot them.
Try not to let your mind wander...It is too small and fragile to be out by itself.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Rocketry pioneer Hermann Oberth published this little gem of a book in 1959. Oberth was born in Transylvania in 1894, read a lot of Jules Verne as a child and had a long and mostly distinguished career. Of course there was that embarrassing period during World War 2 when he was making rockets for the Nazis, but such 'issues' didn't seem to be much of a problem for scientists with skills America wanted during the Cold War, and in 1950 Oberth came to the United States to work with fellow ex-Nazi- er, I mean fellow scientist, Wehrner von Braun.
Always a forward-thinker, Oberth wrote several books on the future of rocketry and space travel, of which this is my hands-down favorite. Oberth's Moon Car has everything you need for a comfortable lunar stay, including a patio, complete with a derrick for winching supplies on board, a suspended beer keg, and a newspaper box-
But of course the cheapskate fuddy-duddies at NASA went bare-bones and bought this instead-
And they didn't even spring for the extended warranty, so the damned things still up there.
and so it goes...
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
I loved this photo the second I saw it, with its formally dressed, starched-collar family perched (seemingly) comfortably atop a boulder in a rugged river canyon. Anyone who has ever hiked in the canyons of Utah or Arizona will appreciate the difficulties involved in traveling along a rock-strewn river bank in patent-leather shoes, not to mention dressing in dark, volumous clothes, as these good people were, with the harsh sun beating down on you.
We've come a long way in terms of dressing comfortably for such activities in the past seventy-five years or so. Of course, these days we do have to change before dining at the lodge...
The photo shows some interesting details- a high white collar, cross and long gold chain worn by the mother, stiff collar and bowtie on the father, and short gold choker with what appears to be a cross, along with an enormous hair ribbon, worn by the daughter-
The father's shiny black dress shoes and the dainty bow-topped shoes the daughter is wearing were simply not made for climbing across wet rocks-
The father's umbrella and multiple gold rings, and the daughter's gold bracelet are nice touches in this wonderful picture. Obviously Victorian-era hikers were made of sturdier stuff than we are today... but maybe not. A few years ago Amy and I were visiting Bryce Canyon and we went on an afternoon hike along one of the longer trails. We'd been hiking in the back country of southern Utah the week before, and so we automatically put on our big hiking boots, and carried our backpacks with snacks and plenty of water. You're unlikely to get into too much trouble in Bryce, but hey, why take chances? Toward the end of the hike, on the way up, out of the canyon, we passed a group of French women tourists on their way down. They were all immaculately dressed and coifed, and many were wearing fashionable black pumps. Chatting happily with each other and evidently having a grand time, they could just as easily have been walking down 5th Avenue in New York. As we trudged by them in our boots and backpacks, we felt terribly over-dressed. Maybe it's all just a state of mind...
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
I've been tagged for a meme by Sara Sue. The rules are "I quickly write 8 random facts/habits about myself, and then tag 8 people."
-Caffeine makes me bounce off the walls, literally. I haven’t drunk more than a sip or two of coffee in years, and one cup of Earl Grey tea is enough to wire me for half the afternoon.
-I love hot weather. During the summer there is always a tug of war around the house as my wife pulls the curtains and closes the windows to keep the place cool, and I retreat to my office and open all the shades and windows wide. I don’t mind at all if it’s 98 degrees outside; I like it, and I want fresh air and sunlight.
-I’ve been a Boston Red Sox fan since I was 5. My grandfather was one too, and back in 2004 after the Sox won the World Series the family all went to his grave and drank a toast.
-I want to spend a month some summer chasing tornados in Kansas, but not until the fad dies down.
-I’m known in certain circles as “The Death Guy”. That’s because one of my specialties in bookselling is books about historic mourning and funeral customs, old gravestones and epitaphs, and such. When conversation gets slow at parties my wife loves to interject “Oh, and Forrest’s ‘The Death Guy’,” which tends to make boring people run away because they suddenly discover they desperately need more bean dip.
-I’m a complete control freak about cooking vegetables in an ‘engineer-geek’ kind of way.
-I once spent a day lying on a sofa “incubating” a half-hatched duck egg on my chest.
-I think that Marcia Cross is the hottest Desperate Housewife.
I don't really like to make people play games, but if they feel like it, I'll tag Catalyst, Phoebe Fay, Cissy Strut, and Gods to play.
Saturday, June 02, 2007
Friday, June 01, 2007
The bookselling world is in turmoil this morning (and how long I've waited to be able to write such a phrase) as ABE (the Canadian-based Advanced Book Exchange) has announced it will be instituting a new "seller rating system".
Ratings systems are nothing new- Ebay has its famous feedback system which has many faults and loopholes, and is endlessley abused by its users, but is at least something. Ratings systems on the book databases are much rarer, so the ABE announcement has everyone talking. The new system will be based on a bookseller's "completion rate", or the ratio of the number of orders he receives to the number he actually ships (instead of canceling them because the book is not available) and which do not get returned by the customer.
On the surface its not a bad idea, but the problem with the new ABE system is in the details, and they are troublesome to many sellers. To begin with, what the general public will see when the system goes "live" next week, is a range of red stars next to each dealer's name, labeled "Bookseller Rating".
Now that's very deceptive, because anyone seeing the phrase "Bookseller Rating" with stars after it is apt to conclude that such a rating rates a whole slew of functions a bookseller performs, such as ability to properly describe an item, speedy shipping, proper packing, trustworthiness, professionalism, fairness, knowledge, and so on. In the ABE system, none of this is the case- your "Bookseller Rating" is based solely on what percentage of orders received you send out. It becomes even more of a problem because ABE is also introducing the ability for customers to restrict their results to only dealers with 5 stars, or 4 stars.
To be fair, ABE does explain that the "Bookseller Rating" is based soley on the completion rate, but you have to hover your cursor over the stars and click to get that explanation box to come up. How many people are going to do that? Very few, I would guess.
If you do that, you get a box with the following information-
AbeBooks Bookseller Ratings
Bookseller ratings are based on completion rate, calculated by the number of items shipped (vs. cancelled at order processing) minus the number of items returned. Booksellers with higher ratings cancel fewer orders and receive fewer returns.
95 - 100% Completion Rate
70 - 84% Completion Rate
60 - 69% Completion Rate
0 - 59% Completion Rate
This brings us to another problem with the system- it is heavily weighted. Why does the 5th star stand for a mere 5%, when the 4th star covers 10%, the third star 15%, and you get one star for basically just breathing- anything between 0% and 59% gets you a star! It has been suggested on several bookseller lists that it would be within ABE's technical capabilities, and would be much fairer, to simply have a line labeled "Bookseller's Completion Rate" followed by an actual percentage based on exactly the same figures they are now using. This would give us less weighting of the results, a less misleading label, and a generally fairer system.
The system, as currently shown, is confusing and I hope ABE fixes it before they roll it out to the public.