Monday, March 31, 2008

I Like Science

Real Science, not this:

Kathleen calls from Thailand, lamenting that the scientific method, the search for reproducible results, is just not part of life in her small village. She misses the US standard of education, misses people who discuss ideas and share a common knowledge of things like biology and physics, who wonder how things work and expect to find answers.

In the US, we often hear how other nations are surpassing us in numbers of college graduates, in people with advanced degrees, in standardized test scores at various ages. We forget that other nations are not attempting the grand plan that Americans take for granted -- that every last one of us deserves the chance to get an education. India may be blossoming in the technology fields, China may be up and coming on the manufacturing scene, but both countries have vast areas where even a basic grade school education is not available.

So I'm shilling for science education today, not for reasons of money or power, but because science is part of our common American culture.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Far From Home

There was a nice review of Brother Tim's new book, Far From Home in the Wall Street Journal today:
This book broadly portrays the various Latino waves in Major League Baseball and contains many brief historical sketches, including a page about an early Washington Senators super-scout, "Papa" Joe Cambria. He worked the Latin America beat in the late 1930s through the 1940s, signed numerous Latinos, and possibly even scouted Fidel Castro.

"Far From Home" contains over 100 photographs, including a poignant photo-essay by co-author José Luis Villegas. His subject, from a series of photos taken in 1996: two Oakland A's prospects, Dominicans Miguel Tejada and Mario Encarnacion. Mr. Tejada, the lesser-regarded of the two prospects, morphed quickly into a star for Oakland and now plays for the Houston Astros. Mr. Encarnacion kicked around various second-tier leagues and died in 2005 at the age of 30 from a congenital heart condition.

The final pages of the book include a portrait gallery of a dozen-plus Latino stars, including pitchers Fernando Valenzuela, the first player to win rookie of the year and Cy Young awards in the same year, and Juan Marichal, who wrote this book's introduction. These portraits are an appropriate homage, as it is these and dozens of other Latino all-stars who have boosted Major League Baseball.
Tim has three books coming out this year, at least by my count. You can read about them on Tim's home page.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Come On Spring!

When I switched to my winter blog background, the one that derives from bare tree branches, I was calmed by the stark simplicity and soothed by the prospect of resting my eyes with winter landscapes. Now I could stand bare branches no longer and so I did a quick renovation while waiting for my Easter ham to bake.

Two days into spring and two weeks into daylight savings time, my yard looks like a demonstration project in glacier formation. The temperature peaked today about 11:30 at 37 degrees, and then it dropped to 32 in about ten minutes. Right now it's approaching dusk with almost clear skies and 22 degrees. I walked right across the foot of snow that has thawed and refrozen so many times that its consistency approaches solid ice. The inland lakes are thick with ice. Richard is still ice fishing on Lake Leelanau; a few days ago he saw a driver take a real shortcut by driving onto the ice just south of Honke Road and crossing over to the landing on the east side at Bingham Road.

I had to dig in my files to find a picture of another year's crocuses. I just needed to see some spring, even if it was a few years old. When the weather warms even a little the flowers are going to pop right up. I am anxious to see the glacier in front of my garden gate melt away so I can start another season.

While looking for some links about local llamas, I found this interesting blog written by a young Swiss family who has been biking through North and South America. Lots of pictures and accounts of toilet training on the road. At the point that I found them, they were transversing a Bolivian salt flat and being accosted by a roaming llama.....

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Llama Feet

Llama Feet in the Hall Outside Wodek's Room at Leland School
at the 2006 4-H Expo

Today I learned that llamas will not urinate or defecate inside. They will wait until they are outside again, which makes it easier to take them to places like classrooms and nursing homes. Llamas will even climb stairs indoors, but only if they've been acclimated to such obstacles. You acclimate a llama by making a llama obstacle course and talking your llama through the course. You might train a llama to stairs and carpets and ramps if you wanted to take it indoors. Or you might train it to walk through brush and rocks if you wanted to use it as a pack animal.

I learned all of this information interviewing Leelanau County 4-H clubs and members in preparation for April 12th's 4-H Expo. A nearly 11 year old girl told me how working with llamas is a lot like working with toddlers: "The first time you want them to do something new you have to do it with them and talk with them the whole time. The next time it's easier, and pretty soon they'll do it all by themselves." I love it when I see kids taking the lessons learned in their projects and applying them to the larger world.

I do have to be careful interviewing livestock clubs. One of these days I'm going to let my guard down and come home saying "Honey, we need a goat."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama Makes Me Laugh

The TV news has been all over the story of Barack Obama's pastor, and his over-the-top statements about race in America. A lot of this was sort of mystifying to me. Growing up Unitarian in a rural community, I ended up tagging along to a lot of churches with my friends. I learned how to blend in at unfamiliar churches (sit behind a large older lady and you'll always know when to stand up and sit down), how to sight read unfamiliar hymns (beware of Indian Mission Church, where Mrs. Collins likes to slip in an extra beat now and then to keep you on your toes) and how to follow along in the sermon until the Us vs Them part (when I just try to remember that we are all human, with all our human failings).

So I don't really know what it's like to go to church and agree with everything that's said. I was wondering if the TV commentators had actually been to church lately, or much at all. Nevertheless, I was curious to see what Obama had to say about the controversy.

He made me laugh. He was talking about his racist white grandma, and he might as well have been talking about my racist white grandma:
I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

I know that cringe well. I remember being simultaneously so proud of my grandparents but so embarrassed and mad at some of the racist things they said.

Obama is skilled in taking the picayune matters that the TV pundits like to dwell on and expanding their themes to encompass our real challenges:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
It's a speech worth listening to, all 30 minutes, or worth reading (transcript here, under the video box).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Thinning the Started Seeds

Before Thinning
After thinning. You can still see a few "trunks".
A small but important step in raising seedlings is to thin them when they start to shade each other out. I thinned the tomato seedlings, with a nail scissors, to about one inch apart. I looked for nice fat stems, not tall plants, as the shorter, stockier ones are stronger.

The basil plants on the right need thinning, too, but I will let them get a little bigger so that I can toss the thinnings into a salad.
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Friday, March 14, 2008

Watching for Northern Lights

I understand that there were Northern Lights sightings in the county last week. I missed them, but I'll be watching out for them for a while.

If the night is predicted to be clear, you can check for the location of the auroral oval on this site from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The arrow indicates when the sun is right now; the oval sort of drifts away from the sun as the earth turns. A good night is when the yellow and orange section drifts away from the poles enough to cover your latitude.

Damping Off


Yesterday this tomato seedling was standing tall. Today its stem is shrunken and its top is toppled. It is suffering from a fungus infection that goes by the common name "damping off." I lose a few seedlings to this syndrome every year, but I plant more than I need, so it will all work out. I'm brewing a pot of strong chamomile tea (a cheap natural fungicide), and when it cools I will use it to water the entire tray of seedlings. I will also stop covering the flat at night. The cover worked for the peppers, keeping them warm, but it also made conditions ripe for fungus.
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Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Garden Is Growing


But just on one shelf in the house, so far. Those are basil plants in the foreground. The tomatoes are behind them, waiting to be thinned with a nail cutting scissors. The peppers are slower. The jalapeno types are showing just a little green above the soil but the bell types are still just lying there. The heat mat under the flat helps to get the peppers going.

There are a few rows of onions and leeks and then the alpine strawberries. The green field in the background is a cake pan full of lettuce and arugula. I'll be cutting that by Easter, for some fresh greens.

The snowplow came by again this morning, to scrape off the three inches of frozen junk that fell last night. I can't wait to dig in the ground.
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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Basketball Team

Leland's varsity basketball team celebrates their win over Bellaire in the Regional Championships. This photo, by Jan-Michael Stump, was published in the Record Eagle a few days after Chess Club.

4-H Chess Club gets a little lumpy towards the end of the winter. Kids are hitting walls, where they pretty much know who they can beat and who can beat them. Kids who were making great advances in their games just from playing, now find themselves playing the same game over and over again. A few are bored because they always win; a few are discouraged because they always lose. In this small school, kids are starting to get on each others' nerves and the walls seem to be closing in on all of us.

This year we've held off the cabin fever by bringing in adults to play. First it was Ian, my co-leader's son, back from Iraq foe a few weeks. Then it was Shelagh and Jordan, my daughter and son-in-law, home on spring break. (Shelagh handled my rudest kids with a combination of the phrases she grew up with and new repertoire from her education classes. It was like watching a new and improved version of myself.)

March 6th is my favorite, though. I hadn't planned on guests. One of my kids took a board to another table to play with a friend. Jordan Gibson, a former chess club kid and now a senior basketball player sat down to watch the game. I think he asked to play the winner. I was absorbed in my own game; by the time I looked up again, most of the team was there and my boards were full.

Much of the basketball team had been in Chess Club when they were in the lower grades. Those guys had gone through the chess club cabin fever thing, too. They ended many Chess Club meetings by playing touch football, even in the slush and mud of spring. It was always the continuation of the same game, which reconvened anytime the could get together for 20 minutes or half an hour. Now they were grown up, calm and polite, wearing dress shirts and ties because it was a game day.

My co-leader was amazed. "Why are our kids so well-behaved?" she whispered.

"Because there are men here," I answered. Our usual problem kid was quiet, watching the games. Every once in a while he would try to tease someone, but the older guys would growl "Cut it out!" and then he would.

The team won their game that night, against Mio, and then won the Regionals against Bellaire in a nail-biter on Wednesday. By the end of the week, the team was the big story, a story made richer by the many similarities to the Northport team that their coach played for a generation ago.

The team's run ended last night in a loss in the state quarterfinals against Muskegon West Michigan Christian. In chess, one of my tasks is to teach grace while both winning and losing. You don't gloat when you win. You don't cry when you lose. You shake hands -- eye contact, palms together, -- and thank your opponent for the game. I'm as proud of these guys in a loss as I was when they were winning. Maybe prouder.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Michigan Do-over, the Reason for the Mayhem

The weekend's networks news reports were all about "disenfranchised voters" in Florida and Michigan. There was little historical analysis; but there was plenty of speculation about how to "fix" the situation.

I think that any attempt to fix things will be like trying to keep finishing cement once it's set. you have a window of time to work it, and after that you're just messing it up. The focus has been on who would pay for a do-over, but I think there are much bigger logistical problems. How would you schedule another election? Our local polling place is Leland School's Performing Arts Center. The PAC is in almost constant use in May and June hosting the school musical, awards convocations, graduation events, choir concerts and rehearsals. To hold an election elsewhere means a separate mailing to announce the new location. It takes lead time to prepare ballots and to get absentee ballots out to voters.

Who would be eligible to vote in a Democratic do-over? Now that the Republican candidate has been decided, there will be Republican voters wanting to "crossover" and vote for the weakest Democratic candidate, just like some Democrats did back in January when a Democratic ticket offered only one choice.

I'm reminded of a Jack Lessenberry column, published back in November when it seemed that legal challenges would prevent Michigan from voting early. Lessenberry explained why both parties were so eager to hold this early primary with its archaic separate-ballot format:
Want outrage? This is how the Michigan primary was supposed to work. The state would pay $10 million or more to hold the election, but to the politicians, what really mattered was not who eventually wins.

What this really was about was using state money to create a gold mine of precious information for the parties. Voters in the primary would have to declare what party they wanted to play in, and the state would then make a list of them, sorted by party, name and addresses.

This list would then be kept secret ... from all of us.

But it would be turned over — for free — to the two political parties, who would not have to pay a dime for the expense of gathering it.

They would be able to use it for "supporting political activities." This means, in modern-day language, shaking down people for money. You might suppose, however, that any other citizen could get a copy of that list too.

Legally, how could it be otherwise? After all, taxpayer money paid for it.

You poor fools. How dare you think that the politicians want you to share in something they are spending your money on? Our job is only to fill their trough, and then stay the hell away while they eat. They made it illegal for anyone to have these lists — except them!
The parties got what they wanted -- priceless information -- and now they want the state to pay to "fix" the resulting mess.

I'm reading Bill Bradley's The New American Story. Bradley left politics after his 2000 presidential bid because he felt that the modern process demanded that candidates put the needs of their constituents a distant second behind the need for constant fundraising. Michigan's political parties (both of them) went further yet, presuming that the winners had already been decided, and changing the primary process to suit the needs of the fundraisers. The voters were disenfranchised from the beginning.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

If I Were Home

If I were not working two back-to-back twelve hours shifts and "springing ahead" in between them, I would be studying this Democratic Convention Watch blog and figuring out who all the superdelegates are.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Message to Howard Dean

I started out calling this "A Letter to Howard Dean" but you don't send letters anymore. Since the anthrax scare, elected officials don't open their mail until it goes through a two week screening process. If you want them to read your message this week, you fill out one of those online comment forms.

Today's issue is whether Michigan's delegation should be seated at the national convention, and Howard Dean is the guy in charge of making that decision. Here is my message:

Please do not honor the results of Michigan's primary election. It was a confusing and flawed process and the results do not reflect the desires of Michigan's Democrats.

I went to the high school and voted for "uncommitted". I nearly walked out when I saw that I had to stand there in front of everyone and choose a Republican or Democratic ballot request form. This is a very Republican area -- I was recently razzed by the library volunteer for checking out The Audacity of Hope--and I'm sure some people turned back rather than make their party preference public. Our government teacher brought his class down to observe that election. He had just taught about the Australian ballot; his students were appalled to find out that we had moved back to the 1850's in election procedures.

My brother, figuring a vote on the Democratic side would be wasted, crossed over and voted for the Republican he was best able to tolerate. My husband didn't vote at all, thinking it to be a waste of time. My neighbor, stationed in Thailand in the Peace Corps, didn't want to invest time and postage in what was supposed to be a symbolic vote. My college kids, two daughters, did not get absentee ballots because their candidate was not on the ballot.

I count six people in the last two paragraphs, and all of them would have voted for Obama or Edwards had they gotten the chance. The college students, especially, have been drawn in to the Obama campaign. They have read his books and follow the campaign online. One daughter made her first ever campaign contribution, $25 of her work-study wages. The college students really don't care about "first woman president" or "first Black president." They are worried about climate change, about health insurance and student loans, about the wars and their classmates who are serving in the armed forces. The victory-at-any-cost attitude, the constant repackaging of the Clinton campaign turns them off. They like Obama because he's always the same guy, with the same message, calling for us to put the common good in front of our own self interest.

My neighbor in Thailand finds herself living in a community that has no rules, where everyone does whatever they can get away with. With the whole world watching this election process, America has a chance to show the world how playing by the rules makes our nation stronger and more inclusive. To accept the results of Michigan's flawed primary election would give the Clinton campaign an unfair advantage and taint the Democratic party in the eyes of the world.

The best solution would be to hold a real primary. But Michigan is broke, and the cost of another primary would have to be subtracted from the small pot of money that is available to fund our schools and fix our roads. A possible solution would be to seat the superdelegates but not consider the results of the primary.

Please make the decision that best preserves the integrity of our process, and ignore our sham primary.


Susan Och
Afterword: Liz called me about 3 o'clock: "Mom, I read your blog and wrote my own message to Howard Dean, and then I set up a Facebook page for people who want to send messages to Howard Dean, because that's how you get things done nowadays."

I'm not sure why a Facebook page is how you get things done nowadays, or even how to find it, but I'll let you know. I watched CNN in the break room as all the talk was about a "do over." Thankfully our governor stood with Florida's governor in saying that such a thing would not be funded by state budgets.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Tired Of Winter

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We're all tired of snow, but the animals are doing something about it. The red squirrel and the grey squirrel are both done hibernating and back to raiding the bird feeders. Our cats and the dog are back to chasing the squirrels; the cats are coming close to success.

The tracks in the snow tell stories all over the yard. Above we have the dog's big tracks, a cat's smaller tracks. and the tiny tracks of a mouse that came out from under the lilac and wandered in skittering paths all over on top of the snow.

I'm doing something about the snow, as well. This is a flat of lettuce and arugula, planted from the seeds of last year's crop. I'm growing them under lights and in the window on sunny days for cutting greens. They were doing well until Shelagh and Jordan brought their cat home for spring break. He found this flat to be a fine place to curl up in the sun. and watch all the action in the yard.

I try to plant peas on St Patrick's Day, but this year it seems unlikely. Lettuce, radishes, carrots, peas, and parsnips will go in as soon as the ground thaws; a little snow won't hurt them as much as the hot sun of June does. I will have a few of last year's parsnips to eat as soon as the ground thaws and they will be a treat.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

First Plantings

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This is an alpine strawberry seedling, one of the first things I planted for the 2008 garden. These tiny seedlings will grow into small strawberry plants that bear fruit, small intensely flavored strawberries that kids love to find and eat.

I started these a few weeks ago in paper towels, but I had to have Anna tell me if the roots had emerged because the seeds are so small. I planted them onto trays with vermiculite over soil, but they were so hard to see that I wasn't sure if I was planting them or smooshing them. A few days ago I saw tiny green leaves so I knew they were growing.

Tonight I planted peppers, tomatoes, and basil, It seems early, but I never seem to get ahead of myself, especially with peppers. Come May 10th, we may be tripping over plants everywhere, but I'll worry about it then.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Early Morning Reading

I know at least one of my readers shows up in the early morning, and is a baseball fan. Two back to back 12 hour shifts have wiped me out, so I'll post a link to Brother Tim's recent article at ESPN MLB about how Cuba's political shift might affect baseball. These paragraphs are something Tim has been saying for years, and they are as true for 5th grade chess players at Leland as they are for Cuban baseball players, and the rest of the world:
We think such stars come simply for the fame and fortune, the lure of a big league contract. Certainly, those are major factors in a player's willingness to make the leap and perhaps even risk his life. But in my discussions with Cuban ballplayers, another reason has been apparent. In our world, we're fortunate enough to compete against the best. Want to pen the next Oscar-winning screenplay? Go to Hollywood. Eager to go toe-to-toe with the best in the business world? Wall Street beckons. That thinking applies to baseball, too.

"That's what some don't understand," Omar Linares, the best Cuban ballplayer of this generation, said during the landmark home-and-away series between Team Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. "You're hungry to play against the best."
You can read more on the ESPN website: Castro's Departure Could Create Brave New Baseball World.