Crossing the Border

Early this morning I was laying in bed while half-listening to the BBC World Service on the radio. Most of my attention was occupied by a fiddle tune playing in my head; I was trying out various improvised variations on the tune when this statement caught my attention:

…and then we crossed the border into Miscellanea.

What could the reporter be talking about in his measured British accent? Was this some sort of strained metaphor?

I listened to more of the story and gradually realized that the border referred to was with Lithuania, not Miscellanea.

This fired up my speculative engine. Why might a country be named Miscellania? (I had to change the spelling.) Perhaps Miscellania is a country of immigrants, none of which has a population majority. Or the spelling might be Missilania, the name of a paranoid country ringed by ICBM missile silos and perpetually suspicious of its neighboring realms.

Back to the tune…


Meat At Taco Bell

Have you ever eaten food from the Taco Bell chain? Have you ever wondered how they can sell tacos and such so cheaply? One reason it is profitable for the chain to sell a taco for 79 cents is that the ground beef is really a composite product with large amounts of filler to “bulk it out”. Here’s an ingredient listing:

The “seasoned ground beef” contains less than 35 percent beef – the other 65 percent of the meat-like mixture is: water, isolated oat product, salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, oats (wheat), soy lecithin, sugar, spices, maltodextrin, soybean oil (anti-dusting agent), garlic powder, autolyzed yeast extract, citric acid, caramel color,
cocoa powder (processed with alkali), silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent), natural flavors, yeast, modified corn starch, natural smoke flavor, salt, sodium phosphate, less than 2% of beef broth, potassium phosphate and potassium lactate.The “seasoned ground beef” contains less than 35 percent beef – the other 65 percent of the meat-like mixture is: water,
isolated oat product, salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, oats (wheat), soy lecithin, sugar, spices, maltodextrin, soybean oil (anti-dusting agent), garlic powder, autolyzed yeast extract, citric acid, caramel color, cocoa powder (processed with alkali), silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent), natural flavors, yeast, modified corn starch, natural smoke flavor, salt, sodium phosphate, less than 2% of beef broth, potassium phosphate and potassium lactate.

Notice that the second ingredient after water is something called “isolated oat product”. What a name! It sounds rather bleak and desolate and prompts me to wonder just what is being isolated from what. According to the FDA the food-like material is defined thusly:

Trade Name: Vitacel Isolated Oat Product
Chemical Name: Oat hull fiber consisting of: Cellulose(70%), Hemicellulose(25%), and Lignin(max 5%)

Oat hulls, eh? Just chaff, really, not very different from sawdust. Lignin in food, what a concept! Lignin is an organic polymer which stiffens the cell walls of plant structures. Lignin gives wood its rigidity. I imagine it can do the same with feces.

I suppose oat isolate isn’t really bad for you — it’s just an inert filler, but I can’t help but think that it is deceptive to call a meat-like food “seasoned ground beef” when the beef is just one third of the product. Taco Bell is being sued right now and it’ll be interesting to see what the legal system concludes.


Eagle Photo by John

My brother-in-law John has been photographing bald eagles lately at a lock and dam near St.Louis. He e-mailed me a shot which I think is his best to date. Notice the shadow on the river and the small fish clasped in the right talons. I also admired the definition and positioning of the wing feathers. I scaled the photo down in order to fit it on this page. A raptor on a mission:


Mountain Top Removal

This morning in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch I read an article about a wrangle between Arch Coal, based in Creve Couer, MO, and the federal EPA regulators. Arch is wanting to remove the tops of several mountains in West Virginia in order to get access to coal; WV residents are opposed to this (I can’t blame them) and the EPA is blocking the corporate move.

I’ve seen the results of mountain-top removal in West Virginia. It’s a sad sight, only possible in the past because the residents of the mountain valleys tend to be poor and without political clout.

The Post-Dispatch article mentioned another coal company in the St. Louis area which has also had disputes with the feds concerning their mining practices in West Virginia. I was interested and wondered why coal companies which were involved in mountain-top removal seem to be located in St. Louis, rather than in the Appalachians. Peabody Coal came to mind; I looked the firm up on the net and found that their headquarters is in St. Louis as well!

Here’s a satellite photo of a scalped mountain in West Virginia. What doesn’t show up in the photo is the silty spoils deposited in nearby ravines and valleys:

I’ve been pondering, and my conclusion is that the American coal industry is gradually transitioning from a focus on the Appalachian region to the Powder River region in Wyoming. There is a lot more coal there, and from what I’ve heard much of it will be sold to China. During my tumultuous years in Hannibal, I noticed numerous boxcars of coal from Wyoming trundling south towards a coal-fired power plant near St. Louis.

Of course, the big question is: how long can this last? Stay tuned for the resource wars of the 21st Century…

Larry (who has a regrettable fondness for ellipses…)

Two Spaces Or One?

Farhad Manjoo recently wrote a piece for the on-line Slate magazine, one which was (I suspect) deliberatively provocative. That’s how you get hits on the web, after all!

The writer’s premise is that anyone who puts two spaces after a sentence rather than one is an illiterate fool. The piece garnered hundreds of comments. I liked this one, from a woman who calls herself Tracy:

This article has almost thoroughly persuaded me to use double spaces after periods, just for the sheer pleasure of annoying the author and type professionals.

The only reason I might not is that it occurs to me that possibly it was written purposefully to get up the hackles of its readers.

Here’s the tirade, if you would like to read it:

Why You Should Never…

I’m in the habit of using two spaces after a sentence, thus Marjoo’s article annoyed me. Several commenters pointed out that when a fixed-space font like Courier is used two spaces make text more readable, whereas when a proportional font is used one space is sufficient. Others pointed out that the single-space custom may have originated in the old print newspaper days, when every space counted (and cost money).

Other commenters pointed out that anything written for the web, such as this post, will have single spaces after a sentence, no matter what the writer typed; this is due to the way HTML works. I’m tempted to find a way around this…

Really, the issue is a tempest in a teapot; at least we don’t have strictly enforced typographical laws, and we are free to indulge ourselves with however many spaces we like!


Hurled Antimatter

The title of a recent NASA press release caught my eye:

NASA’s Fermi Catches Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter Into Space

The very existence of antimatter is just so weird; particles called positrons taking the place of the familiar electrons, the supposition that matter and antimatter mutually annihilate each other if they come into contact… the whole concept is difficult to comprehend and counter-intuitive.

According to the above-linked press release, the “hurled” antimatter is connected with lightning bursts and gamma-ray activity. I suppose that we should be glad that the antimatter is ejected upwards rather than downwards!


Jump-rope Rhymes

I’ve been reading essays by Joseph Mitchell, stories which were published back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in the New Yorker magazine. He was quite a writer, a denizen of New York who liked to hang out with fisher-folk and river-men. Mitchell had that rare gift — he could imaginatively reconstruct conversations. I’ll present some more examples in a subsequent post, but here’s a well-depicted scene from a bygone era. One fine spring day Mitchell was visiting a shad fisherman on his barge:

Some young girls — there were perhaps a dozen of them, and they were eight or nine or maybe ten years old — had come down one of the paths from River Road, and now they were chasing each other around on the riverbank. They were as overexcited as blue jays, and their fierce, jubilant, fresh young voices filled the air.

“School’s out,” said Harry.

Several of the girls took up a position near the shore end of the footwalk to Harry’s barge. Two of them started turning a rope and singing a rope-jumping song, a third ran in and started jumping the rope, and the others got in line. The song began:

                     "Mama, Mama,
                    I am ill.
                    Send for the doctor
                    To give me a pill.
                    Doctor, Doctor,
                    Will I die?
                    Yes, my child,
                    And so will I --- "

Mr. Hewitt looked at them gloomily. “They get louder every year,” he said.

[Some time went by as the four men talked and enjoyed the day. Let’s rejoin them:]

Mr. Townsend and Mr. Hewitt and I had been listening closely to Harry, and none of us had been paying any further attention to the young girls jumping rope on the riverbank. Shortly after Harry stopped talking, all of us became aware at the same moment that the girls turning the rope were singing a new song. Just then, the girl jumping missed a jump, and another girl ran in to take her place, whereupon the girls turning the rope started the new song all over again. Their voices were rollicking, and they laughed as they sang. The song began:

                "The worms crawl in,
                  The worms crawl out.
                  They eat your guts
                  And spit them out.
                  They bring their friends
                  And their friends' friends too,
                  And there's nothing left
                  When they get through...."

Harry laughed. “They’ve changed it a little,” he said. “That line used to go, ‘And you look like hell when they get through.’ ”

” ‘The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. They play pinochle on your snout,’ ” said Mr. Townsend. “That’s the way I remember it. ‘One little worm who’s not so shy crawls up your nose and out your eye.’ That’s another line I remember.”

“Let’s go inside,” said Mr. Hewitt. “It’s getting cold out here. We’ll all catch pneumonia.”

“You know what they used to say about pneumonia, Joe,” Harry said. ” ‘Pneumonia is the old man’s friend’ ”

“A lot of what they used to say,” said Mr. Hewitt, “could just as well’ve been left unsaid.”


A Nun Joke

I happened across this joke at The Session, a web-site where traditional Irish musicians exchange tunes and talk amongst themselves:

The Mother Superior was on her death bed after a long life of service.

The other sisters, seeing that she was in some discomfort, offered her a glass of warm milk. She accepted gratefully.

While the sisters were warming the milk, one of them says, “You know, it might do the Mother Superior some comfort if we were to add a dram of whiskey; it might help relax her.”

Cradle to grave, the Mother had never touched a drop. However, her comfort was their chief concern, so the other sisters agreed, and added a couple shots of the stuff.

They brought it to her, and she sipped away at it till it was all gone. She then asked for another.

As her moment of passing drew closer, the sisters gathered close about her and said,
“Mother Superior, we shall soon be without your presence to guide us. Can you give us any words of wisdom before you go to meet your Maker?”

She smiled at them and said,

“Yes. Don’t ever sell that cow.”

Here’s another one from the same comment thread:

I just got off the phone with a friend living in the Highlands. She said that since early this morning the snow has been nearly waist high and is still falling. The temperature is dropping to 20 below and the north wind is increasing to near gale force. Her husband has done nothing but look through the kitchen window and just stare. She says that if it gets much worse, she may have to let him in.


Early Good Fortune

Last year, when I was living at my building on Hannibal’s West Side, one of my neighbors was a black woman. I had gotten to know her and her extended family and I would often walk up the street for a visit. The woman is married, but her more-or-less estranged husband Lucky lives in Columbia. He comes to Hannibal from time to time and stays a few days. He would say “Aw, sometimes I just need to see what my grandchildren are up to!”

Lucky is a grumbly, gray-haired curmudgeon with a tendency to mutter. He uses an aluminum cane due to old war injuries which give him some trouble. He and I got along pretty well and I could usually prime his verbal pump. He has some interesting stories from his years living in West LA.

Lucky and his wife tended to wrangle after he had been at her house for a while. He would get fed up with family drama and come to my place and bang on the door. I’d let him in and he would complain about the steep stairs:

“Dammit, Larry, why the hell do you live upstairs?”

Lucky would stay for half an hour or so and we’d talk. During one of these visits I asked him “Why do they call you Lucky, anyway?”

Lucky chuckled. “Larry, there’s a good reason for that nickname; they’ve been calling me that ever since I was a day old.”

“My momma went to the hospital to have me and she had an awful time of it. She was in labor for hours and hours. When I was finally delivered I was stillborn — all blue and skinny, and I wasn’t breathing. I can’t blame ’em for thinkin’ I was dead.”

“At that hospital they had a room in the basement where they took dead folks. There were shelves for the bodies, and one shelf had cubbyholes for dead babies and little kids. That’s where they put me. Once a day the undertaker would come by the hospital and pick up the day’s dead bodies and haul ’em off. The hospital janitor would help load the truck.”

“Now, I’m still grateful to that janitor. He saw my toes twitchin’ a little bit and said to the undertaker “By gawd — I think that little black bugger over there is alive!”

“See why they call me Lucky?”


New! Improved!

I must confess that I enjoy a good lead paragraph in a news story — a paragraph which can stand alone as a story in itself. Here’s an example by Dwight Garner, writing in the New York Times:

The New York Times Book Review’s advice and miscellaneous best-seller list — the place where self-help books go to eyeball one another — is a boisterous rolling carnival of hustlers and hacks and optimists and jokers, with the occasional naked lady, tent preacher, dog trainer or television chef thrown in for good measure. Serious books do appear there, but they’re like guests who’ve wandered into the wrong party.

I did read the rest of the piece, but that opening paragraph says it all. In ephemeral media such as newspapers and magazines, that opening paragraph serves as a hook to draw you in to the remainder of the story.

I can’t resist presenting one more satirical paragraph of Garner’s evaluation of the life of a media sleaze-artist:

Want to have “wolverine” sex? Who doesn’t? Eat 4 Brazil nuts, 20 raw almonds and 2 capsules of fermented cod-liver oil and butterfat four hours before intercourse. Mr. Ferriss used a hormone-slash-drug called human chorionic gonadotropin and more than tripled his semen volume. “Happy days,” he writes.

Want more? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t, but here’s the link:

Shape Up Your Life!