Tuesday, January 31, 2012

And darnit...we're gonna make that happen.

I feel like a big old school marm, but it's true when I say it was great to see a sea of young faces interested in learning about renewable energy. Sure, sure...some were there for extra credit. Some were there to try to ask Gotcha questions to what they thought would be the sandal wearing hippie moderating the Q & A session (me). But many were there to learn more about renewable energy and green jobs.

One of the members of our group, the West Michigan Jobs Group, organized a renewable energy presentation at Muskegon Community College, hosted by the MCC Alternative and Renewable Energy Program. Over 100 people showed up. Yikes.



That blurry guy down there in the front is me, moderating a Question and Answer session with the help of a panel of very knowledgeable folks.

We had a couple of middle aged Tea Party type folks ask questions bout subsidies and government spending, and you know what? That's OKAY. Valid questions. And they were very respectful. One of them got a little up on his soap box and talked about the national debt and suggested that none of the young people in the audience wanted to pay for that.

When her turn came to speak, a young woman responded to the Tea Party fellow's comments saying she absolutely supported investing in renewable energy, if it meant less mercury in the water and fewer of her friends had to be blown up halfway across the world because they were trying to keep the oil flowing.

That got mad applause from the audience.

Fantastic.

Here in Muskegon, young people are training to install wind turbines and solar panels. We can't let these folks down when they graduate. When they graduate....they need to have something waiting for them on the other end. A renewable energy future where their skills are needed. And dammit....we're gonna make that happen, aren't we?

Here's Some More of that Creative Destruction Mitt Romney Talks So Much About

Here's another story that underscores the fight for survival industrial towns have been in for decades. The city of Pontiac, Michigan has put just about everything in town up for sale, from the cemetery to the town hall to the library building.

The most poignant part of the story for me is when the reporter asked retired auto worker Charles Mason, "What's happened to your city?"

Mason's reply "It's gone...my city's gone."

Incidentally, this is what folks like Mitt Romney refer to as "creative destruction" as a vague dismissal of the human collateral damage from bad economic policy. These huge industrial ghost towns didn't have to happen. The experiment to shift America to a service based economy has been a drawn out failure for most of our country.

Monday, January 30, 2012

No Snow, but Plenty of Snowy Owls

Neat!

I've been grumbling about the lack of snow this year, but what we suddenly have more of is the Arctic snowy owl. Apparently plentiful food for the beautiful birds has caused a population explosion, and the young males are expanding their territory, with Northern states in the US, like Michigan, being the beneficiaries. Here's a report of a news crew finding one in Muskegon's waste water treatment facility.



Here's some YouTube footage some local person in Muskegon took of a snowy owl.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Drying out some pears

Pears. I found bosc pears on sale at the store, so I snapped up quite a few.

One of the great things about preserving foods is that when things are crazy cheap, you can buy lots of it and save it for when it's not. Lately I've been a huge fan of dehydration. I've got one of those little electric dehydrators plugged into the wall and the little fella seems to do what I ask of him without much in the way of complaint.

Canning is fine and all...but dehydration is a lot less work and has the added benefit of shrinking the food down to a much more easily storageable size. Also brings out the sweetness of many fruits.

So there's that.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Fate of the Badger isn't a Story of Government Intrusion. It's a Story of Greed.

The SS Badger. Have I ever talked about the SS Badger?



It's a car ferry that travels between Ludington, Michigan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It takes about four hours to get across the lake. After operating since 1953, the SS Badger is likely to be shut down from an EPA rule, and it's entirely the owners' fault. As the last remaining coal powered passenger vessel in the United States it dumps about 4 tons of mercury and arsenic laden coal ash into Lake Michigan every single day it operates. Every. Single. Day. Shutting it down will kill a West Michigan landmark, and hurt the economy of the small town of Ludington. Blame falls on the owners of the Badger.

I would disagree with those who would shut down the Badger with relish and gusto. More appropriately, if it must go out, it should go out like an old, beloved family pet. Yes, it's a polluting old vessel. But it's OUR polluting old vessel. And it holds beautiful, cherished, and warm memories for many of us.

I rode on it once when I was very very small. So long ago that I only have sense memories of it. The wind on my face. The smell of the lake. And blue, and blue, and blue. Getting drowsy and sleeping against my father. The memories are, though I barely remember them, fond ones. I have a certain pain in my heart to hear that it's likely to shut down. And I have an even greater pain in my heart for the city of Ludington which sees quite a bit of economic activity from the Badger. Up to 200 jobs created from the ferry in a small coastal michigan town on the edge of Up North.

It's going to hurt Ludington when the Badger goes.

Those who would blame the EPA are misplacing their anger. State reps are trying to get exceptions from the EPA to allow the Badger to continue dumping on the grounds that it's historic. On the grounds that it's the LAST remaining coal fired passenger vessel, while the EPA is shutting it down for exactly the same reason.

Ultimately, however, the blame lays in the hands of the owners. The writing has been on the wall for more than a decade that coal as a source of power for ships was on the outs. You don't get to be the last remaining coal fired passenger vessel in the United States without ignoring the warning signs, and going for cheap cheap cheap at the expense of our waters.

In 2008 the Environmental Protection Agency demanded that the SS Badger find a way to capture and properly dispose of the coal ash rather than directly dumping it into the lake. It gave them years to do this.

Did the owners of the Badger do it?

Given years to do so, did they do it?

Given years to change to a new fuel source or simply reclaim the coal ash rather than dump it into the Big Lake did they do it?

No.

The owners have had years of notice. Half a decade. Years and years to stop dumping their coal ash into the lake. But they ignored it.

This isn't a story of government intervention. This is a story of greed. This is a story of a company that wanted to run this landmark ship as long as possible as cheaply as possible with no regard for its long term survival or the health of our Great Lakes. While all other passenger ship businesses moved on......the owners of the Badger tried to wring out every last cent from the ship before it died, everyone else be damned.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Great Lakes Ice Dunes

Ice dunes...

I admit I feel a little silly about this but when I first read the word "Ice Dune" in an article, referring to ice dunes along the shores of the Great Lakes, I thought "Wow! Something new! I've never heard of those!" And here I thought I knew a fair deal about the Great Lakes. But ice dunes! That was new to me.

I started reading more about them, seeing more pictures of them and realized "OH! I know those!" They pile up along Lake Michigan, but I never called them Ice Dunes. I've always just called them Piles Of Ice or Ice Ridges.

An ice dune (also called an ice ridge or an ice foot) is a formation of ice that accumulates on the shores of many arctic beaches and is also common along the shores of the Great Lakes during the winter.

They form along the shores as ice is pushed up and freezing water splashes onto the shore and turns to ice. They get quite large. And some completely insane people sometimes seek out ice ridges that have broken off and move boats up to them and fish off of them........

I don't know where this picture was taken, but this is a decent picture of a standard ice ridge along the Great Lakes in the winter and gives a decent perspective of what's going on.



Here's what they kinda look like from the shore



This winter when the snow has had a longer amount of time to pile up I'll go down and see if I can get some good pictures of these ice ridges or ice dunes.

As a general rule, climbing on them is not advised. Neither is fishing from them. They can be wicked dangerous (wicked...that's a word my three year old son has discovered and now he has me saying it....I admit I feel pretty good when my son tells me "Dad...you are TOTALLY WICKED!!!")

Don’t climb the ice dunes, warn the rangers and the signs. Yet danger seemed remote as I scanned the serene frosted landscape near the entrance to Presque Isle State Park, a seven-mile spit of land arching into Lake Erie from Pennsylvania’s far northwest corner.

Nevertheless, locals share tales of daredevils who’ve attempted ice dune ascents only to crash through and break an arm or a leg on ice jags, or succumb to hypothermia, or risk drowning in a frosted tomb. Then there was the woman stuck on a dune that broke free and drifted away from the shore.

Glad to say I've learned something new today.

Honesty I've marveled at these formations and have **cough** climbed on them, but never really put much thought into them as a formation relatively unique to the Great Lakes.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Passing the Man with the Cardboard Sign

Before the third type of cold far in the negatives where you swear you can hear the high pitched etch and creak of ice, like steel, extending into ice, there are two distinct early stages of cold. Each one is marked by its own auditory experience. Sound changes as it freezes.

In the mild cold just around the point of freezing, fluctuations are enough that the water isn't sure where to go some frozen water returns to vapor, catching sound as it travels the early-winter fog. With mild cold comes downy snow, muffling the sound all the more. Then the mercury drops and moisture freezes and falls. Tiny, reflective flakes form and fall all at once and then leave the air clear of moisture when sound takes on a ragged, hard edge, and the cold bites at the skin.

It was on a day like the second type I saw a weathered man off the side of a busy street, along the entryway to the Meijer super-market gripping a sign that read: Homeless Hungry Please Help.

I was on my way to Plumb's grocery store with my little boy in the back of the car signing something about farts.

Once per year, around this time, a friend of mine calls me and tells me that Plumb's is having its massive annual meat sale. Pork chops for as little as a dollar a pound. New York strip steaks for 2.99 a pound...which is about as much as regular ground beef is, normally. So each year we go to Plumb's and buy 10 pounds of these steaks, we split up the cost and the portions and then we stuff our freezers with steak for $15. I keep them for company and guests and special occasions.

When I saw the man with the sign I reflected on how many others I'd seen recently. How many more people are holding signs like that over the past couple months. Now, several times a week there's somebody new at the exit of a grocery store, sanding at a slow moving median. Looking weathered with hard skin.

I drove for a little bit with my mind nagging at me saying "Oh COME ON! You can't just do NOTHING". I had no dough so I pulled into the nearest convenience store to get foods. The boy and I made a quick run through: hard sausages, crackers, trail mix. I put them into a plastic bag and threw in two 8 hour hand warming packs I found in my glove compartment. Then we circled back around to where the man was. He was no longer there.

Too little, too late.

I like to imagine somebody picked him up and brought him next door to Russ's for some soup or an olive burger. But perhaps he just walked into Meijer to get out of the rugged, hash cold.

The number of folks with the signs has been on the rise. And for I wondered, "Why now? Why all of a sudden?" Homelessness is on the rise. And it's likely to continue to rise.

All in all, the conditions are right for national homeless rates to start rising soon, according to a new report that examines many of the large-scale economic factors that force people out of their homes. The report, published Tuesday by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, suggests that a delayed wave of pain may be coming for low-earning renters and homeowners.

"It takes a while for people to become homeless," said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. "They don't enter the shelter right away."

[snip]

For homelessness to start climbing just as the unemployment rate begins to deflate might seem counterintuitive. But such is the nature of homelessness, which tends to lag behind other macroeconomic trends.

Add to that the crushing effects of states slashing public assistance.

Michigan recently and retroactively killed cash assistance for individuals who had been receiving it for more than 48 months. Over 600 FAMILIES in Muskegon alone lost their sole means of paying for housing.

Now, as many have predicted, homelessness appears to have surged.

In the short term, I'm not clear on how to respond to that. I'm not clear on how to help each person along the streets each day.

When finding the man with the sign had gone, I put the bag in the back of the car thinking maybe I'd save it for the next person I pass.

The boy and I turned the car around and drove to Plumb's to pick up our five pounds of new york strip steak.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Goodbye, Etta James

My wife introduced me to Etta James while we were courting, and we played this song at our wedding. Etta James passed away today at the age of 73. I admit I'm getting a little bit misty.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Vulnerability of Needing Two Breadwinners in a Family

A friend of mine is losing his job. And with two young children at home. We've all heard it before, so just [insert heart wrenching tale of woe here].

But this brings me to something Elizabeth Warren talked about during a lecture I saw on YouTube a while back, which I'll try to locate. (Found it, it's posted at the bottom)/

One thing we don't often consider when thinking about the modern American family compared to fifty years ago is the consequences of needing both parents to work in order to support the family. Good that we're starting to move beyond the Woman Defaults to Staying Home. Bad that we need BOTH parents working to get by.

Fifty years ago when households were mostly supported by a single breadwinner, if an emergency came up and the family suddenly needed more money, the other person could seek out some paying work or even a job to keep the family in the black.

OR...if the main breadwinner lost his job, BOTH parties could theoretically go out and look for work, increasing the likelihood of success.

Or if there was a severe illness in the family...one could stay with the loved one, while the other continued to bring home money.

That type of model had quite a bit more flexibility than the modern American family has.

At the current state, the family is maxed out. Over time they may each be able to find a higher paying job...but in the case of a sudden emergency and sudden demand for more money than is available, there are few places to turn but credit.

And now, instead of a family having DOUBLE the chances of FINDING a job, it has DOUBLE the chances of LOSING a job. Since the family is maxed out and demands both incomes to get by, just one person losing a job knocks the family down.

When a family member gets seriously ill and requires care, long term....there's nobody to take that role without reliquishing a job. OR if one of the working parents gets ill long term and cannot work........same thing.

The father of a friend of mine used to work for the paper mill before it closed down after a century of operations here. He made good money, there. Made a good living there. Helped send his daughter college from his earnings, she was the first person in his family to go to college. He made good benefits. Had security during sick leave.

But that job is gone, now. He now works for $9 an hour, and when he got sick and needed to take 7 days off from work, he was threatened with losing his job after 4 days off, and he came back to work 3 days earlier than his doctor told him he should. Both he and his wife work, now. And they are moving up in years, into their 60s.

Anyway...as I was saying at the beginning of this post: a friend of mine is losing his job. And I don't know what his family is going to do.

Last night I heard our governor, Governor Snyder, giving the State of the State Address. He touted the rebound of the domestic auto industry at least three times during his speech, without once mentioning the Obama administration. And unlike Obama who, when citing progress, adds there's much work still to be done....Governor Snyder shouted victoriously several times that Michigan's unemployment has fallen to 9.8%.

AHA! Here it is

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's Simple, Really...I Add Love and Scrabble to My Homemade Hot Sauce


People often ask me "Mr. Critic, what IS the SECRET to your delicious hot sauce?"

And I say to them "It's simple really, I use love, peppers and vinegar. And apparently Scrabble has something to do with it, too, as you can see by the picture."

I've recently fallen deeply in love with spicy foods and prefer, now, to make my own hot sauce rather than buy it at the store. That little glass cylinder of hot sauce there is approximately a third of a cup, and cost no more than 20 cents to make.

I grow and dry many of my own peppers, but I've also found an Asian market in town, on 3rd street near Mia and Grace (if you're into the locavore hipster foods thing) or the Ice Pick (if you're more into mosh pits and surgical staples thing) which sells good sized bags of dried Thai peppers for two bucks.

I used a small handful of peppers for this batch. Make sure to have a small, resealable glass container, some vinegar and something to mix with handy (like a chop stick or a small spoon).

1. Grind the dried peppers in a coffee grinder.

2. FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT's GOOD DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT open the coffee grinder right away or you'll get a lungful of powdered, vapoized Thai peppers. Get me? So just wait five minutes while the dust settles.

3. Dump the powder into the glass.

4. Mix in pure vinegar, mixing all the way until the sauce is the consistency you want.

There. You're done. I do have a food drier so I dry some of my own peppers. The orange-ish pepper there is a dried habanero pepper from my mother's garden. Funny story about those....she thought she had planted sweet bell peppers and got all these tiny little orange peppers. So did I, and I ate one when I went to drop my son off at her house.

Ouch. That was before my love affair with spicy foods.

In other news...that other container up there is a re-used maple syrup container. Filled it with some dried Thai peppers and some jalapeƱo peppers and then filled it with vinegar. I use the hot pepper infused vinegar for cooking.

So there's that.

Warmer Summers and Winters, More Great Lakes Algae Blooms

Here's a good explanation of algae blooms in the Great Lakes from Andrew Paterson, a senior scientist with the Ministry of the Environment in Canada.

There appears to be an increase in algae blooms across the Great Lakes...this is particularly evident in Lake Erie where an algae bloom visible from space is an annual occurrence, now. It should be noted that Paterson takes the cautious approach and says that algae blooms SEEM TO BE on the rise, but that could simply be a result of greater public awareness and more reporting.

When giving public lectures on the topic, I often hear the question: are algal blooms getting worse?

Anecdotally, this appears to be the case. With a few notable exceptions, I have yet to hear from a member of the public that their lake has fewer algal problems, or better water quality now than in the past.

The weird thing is, phosphorous levels are declining even as algae blooms appear to be on the rise, which is odd since algae blooms in the past have been associated with phosphorous levels.

So researchers are currently trying to figure out why there appears to be an increase in the number of algae blooms. Paterson seems to point to warmer, drier weather.

A rise in reports of algal blooms in Ontario is consistent with the observation that algal blooms are increasing in lakes throughout the world. Nutrient enrichment (in other words, increasing additions of phosphorus to lakes) is the leading cause globally, with blooms further exacerbated by climate change.

In Ontario, higher phosphorus concentrations are indeed part of the story. There are lakes near Sudbury, for example, where increased shoreline development and urbanization have contributed to higher phosphorus levels, and consequently, algal blooms.

However, in recent years, blue-green algal blooms have also been observed in lakes with low or declining phosphorus concentrations, suggesting that phosphorus is not the whole story.

Scientists are now beginning to report an increased likelihood and severity of algal blooms in summers that are warmer and drier. Warmer and longer summers, which are becoming more common in many parts of the province, can lead to warmer water temperatures, a longer ice-free season and more stable water columns in lakes. All of these factors favour blue-green algae and the development of algal blooms in general. My own research on Three Mile Lake found a link between the unusually warm and dry weather in late 2005, and the formation of an algal surface scum that year.

I'd like to point out the statement about longer ice-free seasons. Reduced ice cover is particularly of concern among Great Lakes researchers. The great thing about ice cover over the winter is it reduces evaporation. Greater evaporation over warmer winters creates the seemingly conflicting scenario where the winters are warmer....but you get more snow. Which seems to be what we have now. Climate change models for the Great Lakes predict less ice cover, more snow, and declining water levels. We may have to add more algae blooms to that list as well.

Time to Embrace the Internet there, Traditional Media Folks

Sign the petition to stop SOPA and PIPA from destroying the Internet as we know it.

Pssssst...hey traditional media companies: The Internet has changed things for everybody. EVERYBODY. Small book stores and gift shops have taken a hit or closed down entirely. A 4th generation owned jewelry store in town closed its doors after 121 years in the community in part because people are now buying diamonds online. The store survived the GREAT DEPRESSION, but it did not survive the Internet.

All the small guys have already felt the burn as our leaders in Washington went about their....I guess it's called "business"... and Small businesses are just now starting to realize how to use the Internet to their advantage. Facebook. Twitter. Blogs. There's finally starting to be a decent cooperation between small business and the Internet. This new tool out there is a friend. Not just a friend.....it's becoming a pillar FOR micro-businesses. A way to compete with the big guys.

But NOW the mega Media companies are feeling the burn. And that's different, isn't it? Now Washington is sitting up and taking notice. NOW, after two decades and billions of pages of content. NOW our leaders want to implement draconian changes that fundamentally alter the Internet.

Here's my advice to the large traditional media companies: Adapt.

Adapt. Cuz...you know...the REST of us did. The small guys HAD to.

Cramming laws like SOPA and PIPA through is going to be a disaster for small businesses all over again.

And besides....the arts are infinitely adaptable. The arts have seen continuous transformation over the centuries in how they're funded...

...roving minstrals performing in the town square for coins, street performers, street artists...

...kings and nobelmen being arts patrons, funding massive works of art and plays...

...the Catholic Church...government funding...corporate funding...

...donations...

The current model of art as a mass produced product is a bit of an anomaly. And that train hasn't ended yet. It's chugging right along with plenty of money still to be had.

But the writing it on the wall. Adapt. Don't force the rest of us to have to adapt to you.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

European Economic Woes Put Hundreds of Muskegon Manufacturing Jobs on Hold

Ouch! OUCH! I'm heartbroken. My heart, broken. BROKEN. OOOOUCH.

I read the front page story in the local newspaper and felt a combination of "of course" and heart broken. I mean, of course, right? OF COURSE. Of. COURSE. My wife, the eternal cynic warned me. Curse my hopeful spirit. Slamming my fingers in the door over and over and over again.

Heartbroken.

That's really the only way to describe how I'm feeling after reading that the advanced battery manufacturing plant planned to begin production in Muskegon this year has been delayed for another two years. Seven hundred jobs put on hold.

This one plant would have tipped the balance in Muskegon County out of chronic, long term high unemployment. It would have replaced, at least in numbers, the hundred hear old paper mill that closed its doors years ago.

MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP — Turmoil in the European financial markets has contributed to a nearly two-year delay in the original plans of fortu PowerCell Inc. to build an advanced battery plant in Muskegon Township.

[snip]

The two-phase development was projected to have created 745 jobs with an overall $670 million investment. Community leaders, job seekers, contractors and industrial suppliers were thrilled when the Michigan Legislature in December 2009 created a special $135 million battery tax credit for fortu's Muskegon development.

I remember a freezing cold, blizzardy December in 2009 when a group of friends and I met with our local state representative at a coffee place to talk to her. We had heard that a tax credit for a large battery manufacturing plant had been approved by our legislature...but none of us believed it was for real.

We asked our State rep "Is this for real? Is this REALLY going to happen? Is this actually happening?"

She shook her head and said "SO MANY PEOPLE have asked me that question. Nobody wants to get their hopes up. But yes. Yes. This is actually happening."

After so many false starts, it was hard to believe. But I let myself believe it.

My wife was all like "Right. I'll believe it when I see it. Not. Gonna. Happen."

And I was all like "OH COME ON! Stop being such a naysayer. THIS TIME it's for real. This it IT. "

They were gonna start manufacturing THIS YEAR. HIRING THIS YEAR. After more than a decade of crappy, crappy, crap crap and hardship. This plant...it was a large part of our ticket out. We'd get out of this shit, continue to diversify and lure folks here and we'd never ever look back.

The company says it's merely a delay. And maybe it is. Maybe it's a two year delay, and folks who have been struggling for so long now need to hang on for another two years. Or maybe it's simply not going to happen.

I do not enjoy this business of waiting around for it to rain. A community simply can't wait for large corporations to get off their fragile and skittish duffs to come in and create jobs. It's the small businesses that, in the long term, will make the difference. The small, mom and pop shops that are vested in the community and have no other option but to stick it out in our neighborhoods. This large, international corporation crap takes control of our own economic destinies out of our hands.

Screw those guys.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Muskegon Documentary "Up From the Bottoms: Search for the AmericanDream" to Premier on PBS Nationwide

The Internationally acclaimed, and award winning film "Up From the Bottoms: Search for the American Dream", produced and directed by Jim and Rod Schaub of my home town, Muskegon Michigan will premiere on PBS nationwide in February.

"Up From the Bottoms" chronicles the movement of African Americans from the South to West Michigan around the turn of the century.





February 5th, PBS - 8:00 PM....watch it.

Charlie Rose Covers "Engineered Inequality"

Hey! Want to get all depressed today and feel like a miserable middle class victim? Charlie Rose has the fix for you:

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson on Winner Take All Politics from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.


I'll sum up: Rich folks are getting richer, while for everybody else there's downward pressure on wages and salaries even as the stuff we need to buy - medicine, food, etc - is getting more expensive. And Washington is complicit in it all...in fact have engineered it.

Blah blah blah, shoo-be-do-be-doo...you know, the stuff you live every day. They talk about it.

So, there you have it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Snow, Finally

It's coming down. The snow. Finally.

Been like living in a snow globe these past few days. Foot, foot and a half. After a warm and snowless early January it's finally snowing.

I hear it's going to be 40 degrees and rainy on Monday...in mid January. Freaky. But we'll see.

Ya Gotta Hand it to Ayn Rand

I'm having a conversation with a childhood friend with whom I recently reconnected.

Pretty awesome fellow. He's a successful artist with pronounced Objectivist (Any Rand) / Libertarian leanings. Not ideologies I care for, I admit.

I have no doubt as to his goodness as a person or his intelligence. Frankly, I've seen and participated in enough political demonization to last me the rest of my life. And seondly frankly, I'm done with that. Ick, blech, patoo. Yuck. How does a bloke get by thinking so many people around them are bad people? Ain't right, I say.

More interesting than the fellows goodness or badness was his framing of free market principles as an issue of moral imperative, rather than one strategy for distributing goods and services.

So far as I can tell, even when given examples of free market failings, the only moral choice is to stick to free market principles, regardless of how well or poorly goods and services may have been distributed.

One has to give mad props to Ayn Rand for successfully promoting Free Market As a Moral Imperative. It strips the actual distribution of goods and services from the economics model and makes economic decisions as binary in nature: on or off. Right or Wrong. Objective. Objectivist.

The success of an economic decision to benefit the consumer or efficiently distribute goods and services seems to become secondary to the assumed morality of free market principles.

It seems we're dealing less with an economic model and more with a ethical or moral code, which seems a bit on the odd side.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Good and Bad of Muskegon's Nov. 8.4% Unemployment Rate

The good news is, Unemployment in Muskegon for November 2011 was BELOW the national unemployment level!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

WOOHOOOOOO!

8.4% BABY! We are ON OUR WAY! Down from a high of 15.5%....NOT BAD.

'course...back then our labor force was 84,193 people. Today it's 81,409 people. Hey, man...drop 2,748 people out of the workforce, and BAM...there you go. You've reduced unemployment levels.

But again, on the bright side, in December we had 74,581 employed folks compared to Feb 2010 when we had 71,123 employed people. So we ADDED 3458 jobs at the same time 2,748 dropped out of of the labor force.

Meet in the middle to 8.4% unemployment.

Still, we're down from 86,030 employed folks in Muskegon in 2006 when our employment was merely 7%. For the math impaired, that's about 11,449 fewer jobs today than we had just 6 years ago. WUMP...and our employment is just 1.4% added to the unemployment then. Cuz the workforce then was 92,915......11,099 folks more than in November (81,409)

Folks who dropped out of the labor force are folks who gave up. Can't blame 'em really. You can really only look for so long before you adopt an Aw Screw It attitude. Couple of years. Maybe three. Maybe more. You're in your early 20s and haven't had much experience to be highly sought at in the workforce.....you're in your 60s and nobody is looking to hire you figuring you're on your way out of the workforce permanently soon anyway. So you drop out. Screw it.

We've got quite a ways go to...but heck...we're on our way, I guess.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sharing Jupiter

Prior to a game of Settlers of Catan with our boy I went out to the trunk of the car to get some wood for the fireplace.

While I cut and split about 70% of our wood, I supplement the rest of it buying wood from other sources, mostly from a fellow on Henry Street who sells wood for 6 pieces for a dollar. But they're huge pieces. Gigantic.

During the summer he sells smaller pieces of pine. Horrible wood for heating the home using a fireplace insert. He sells pine in the summer, the season when campers and tourists are in town enjoying the lakes and beaches, and camp in Hoffmaster and roast marshmallows over the fire pit and create a wonderful scent and hazy atmosphere when driving by the campground on the way home, while campers light the darkness, cook hot dogs, and make smores with their families.

But as the campers go, and the weather turns cold the wood man changes his offerings from pine to hardwood. Massive chunks. Pine isn't good for heating the home with unless you have an outdoor wood furnace. Mostly pine is for the campers. It's gooey. Resinous. Clogs the chimney and makes chimney fires more likely. Hardwoods are best. And the wood guy offers hardwoods in the winter. He sells huge pieces. Each piece I split up into three or four normal pieces. Oak, maple...sometimes walnut or sassafras. But mostly hardwood. As though the wood man knows that winter folks are heating their homes, as though he holds off with the hardwood until the tourist season is over and sells the large chunks of hardwood to the locals.

I stocked up, shoved as much as I could into the car and drove it home.

As I went out into the darkness this evening to take wood from the car and bring it to the house for heating, I heard a voice. My elderly neighbor. A widow.

"Hi!" said the voice from the darkness.

Surprised, "Oh! Geeze...you scared me! Hi!"

"Oh I'm sorry, dear. I'm just looking up at the sky. I'm wondering if that's a planet up there between the trees. It's so bright!"

I looked "I................maybe?" I went over into my neighbor's yard to see what she was seeing "Wow...that might be a.....plane? No...it's not moving........maybe.....Venus?"

"I don't KNOW, but it was so beautiful. I saw it from the window...I have half a mind to go down to the Lake and see it better."

We talked of Aurora Borealis and constellations.

"When my husband was alive I was outside and I saw such beautiful greens and yellows maybe....maybe five years ago?" she told me "I told my husband and at first he told me it was too late to go out but he came out and we were both so amazed. He and I, we went down to the Big Lake that very moment, even though it was so late and we watched the colors in the sky...."

I didn't speak.

We just looked at the brilliant heavenly body off on the Western horizon together in the January darkness.

A Beautiful Spring Day!

Ah spring!

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The warm breezes, the melting snow the....wait a second....

OH! It's the middle of JANUARY, you say? In MICHIGAN?

That can't be right. It's 45 degrees outside. There's no snow. The birds are chirping, the squirrels are squirreling. The lakes are......this.....odd...liquidy consistency.

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Where's the city of ice fishermen and their sacks of Miller Lite?

A couple weeks ago my older boy asked me if we could go ice fishing this year and I was like "YES! That sounds like FUN! Let's DO that."

And THEN we got THIS big snow and I felt sure that winter had FINALLY gotten off to a slow and late start, but a start anyway:

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And that lasted all of two days before melting away. And here we are again. Obnoxiously sunny skies. GREEN GRASS. Warm breezes. Birds CHIRPING. PEOPLE JOGGING in SHORTS, for the love of god.

Ain't nachral. I know that Weather isn't Climate. But still.

This isn't the warmest January on record. That was in 2000. But I don't like it. Nosir. Not one bit.

The guy who sells huge chunks of firewood for an AWESOME price, who stops cutting when the winter sets in...he's STILL putting firewood out. It's FREAKING me OUT.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

The Ever Rising Dread

Ever hear of the Shepherd scale? It's a seemingly endlessly sinking (or rising) scale. Take a listen while you read the rest of this post. This one gives an endlessly sinking sense of dread:



It is, of course, possible to ratchet up rhetoric, anger, and fear forever.

M.C. Escher

There's not necessarily an 11 on the dial. The dial just spins around in a circle. Escher knew it. Bach knew it. Artists and musicians know it.



And of course many of our political commentators know it. Every day the big evil gets bigger and more evil, and that sinking feeling of dread gets deeper and deeper without bottom. And the outrage grows and grows and grows. Like being on a Merry Go Round, with a sense of motion and acceleration, with every downward movement of the horse on the carousel it actually feels like you're gaining speed.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

And That's When I Realized My Kids Hadn't Seen a TV Commercial For More than a Year

Two things stood in the way of plastic window insulation this year:

1. Christmas lights
and
2. Cost

And besides, it's been barely below 45 degrees most of this winter, with just the one real snow...it's FREAKY. It's JANUARY and the one snow we had has melted away. I've heard more than a few mixed feelings on the issue. On the bright side, no snow and it's warm! On the down side, no snow and it's warm. Plus there's that whole global warming thing........**shudder**

For the places where the kids hang out the most, I've fashioned more durable window insulation. Thick plastic with velcro along the top, so I can affix it to the top of the window. Then I tape along the edges. Plus it's recyclable. I can fold it up and put it away over the summer and take it out and put it back up over the winter and tape along the edges again. The thinner stuff is good, but the kids can and do poke their fingers right through it.

Anyway, with the Christmas lights down and the temps FINALLY starting to drop, I stopped by to spring for a pack of insulation film and was intercepted by a man from Direct TV.

He said something about Direct TV and switching over and I said:

"How much is it?"

"Well, come over here and let me show you....with Direct TV you get dsafwer and gwerqaer, and 150 channels and free asdfasew, PLUS one asdfawer asdfasfwer and fgsdf and we also throw in sadfagwer"

"How much is it?"

"I'll show you right now...now with Comcast you have qw34qsgfa and asdfavage, and you have probably noticed that you can't adfga asasdfa asdf ascasdwergaa asfasdewracdageew adasdfweweadca or aarrwrdagasdfsdf but with Direct TV you CAN, and asdfasdfasd casd asdf a asdf wer a asf sdf fw e asd a sd we r adfg SDFAsdfwer sadfgv fsd asdf sesr asd fasdf..."

"How MUCH is it?"

"Here...look at this...I'll compare Comcast with Direct TV..."

The ultimate mistake of the evening from both of us is HE assumed I gave a crap about the Television and I assumed his company offered internet service to speak of. We parted ways cordially, but that's when it hit me, my children probably haven't seen an actual television commercial in our home for nearly two years.

It wasn't so much of a intentional effort to keep them from commercials. It was more of an economic decision. Heh...weird that it's CHEAPER to NOT have ads sprayed in your face.

I have the cheapest Television package possible from Comcast because for whatever bizarre reason it's actually five bucks cheaper per month than having just the Internet. Weird. My kids watch PBS and stuff from Netflix. Usually when they pester me for stuff, it's because their friends have it. For example, Bayblades. All his friends have Bayblades. Fortunately, Santa provided a Bayblade. That Guy is awesome. Incidentally if you're looking for Bayblades they can be had at Meijer for $4.99. It's basically a badass looking top that spins in a bowl with another badass looking top and the last badass looking top spinning wins. It's very exciting.

It's pretty cool going ad-free in the homestead.

My only regret with the lack of television commercials in the home is we're not there to inoculate the kids from the effects of commercials later on, deconstructing them as they play their siren song. It never hurts to explain the strings behind marketing as an ad is playing.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Went To a Fight and a Fight Broke Out

My father had a small stack of free promo tickets to a Grand Rapids cage fight and he passed them out liberally in the parking lot, and so it came to happen that I had a seven year old companion and his mother sitting next to me and my wife, also from Muskegon. The boy's father was a cage fighter and it seemed the boy knew everybody in the place: the ring girls, the referees, the fighters. Men dressed in T-shirts with the word MEDIC in red block print gave the boy a high five as they passed by the table. In fact, the boy's father was paired with the boy's uncle in the first match. We could not have asked for a better companion.

Stocky, rosy cheeked little boy with a spiked up mohawk and a front tooth missing. Much like my own son. Surely the tooth fairy had been kind to him.

I joked with him "Wow! Look at that tooth! Looks like you got into fight yourself!" HA HA HA!

He laughed too and nodded, "YEAH! It was on the SCHOOL BUS! My friend and I got into a fight and he KNOCKED my tooth RIGHT OUT!"

"OH! So you DID get into a fight?"

"YEAH! It HURT! I'm not gonna get into a fight with HIM again! HEY! I THINK I see my DAD!!!! SEE! He's over THERE! He's got the....the....YEAH! It HURT like HECK! My TOOTH! It was DANGLING by a tiny piece of SKIN and the DENTIST just PULLED it off and that HHHHUUUURRRRT!!!!"

"Geeze...well...so, are you thinking maybe it wasn't a good idea to fight?"

"I don't know...but not with him! He's huge! HEY LOOK! It's my DAD!"

A huge man strode out into the ring, a gigantic pink mohawk spiked up high, with a bright pink Breast Cancer Awareness ribbon tattooed onto the top of his half shaven head.

"YEAH DAD! GET UNCLE M!!!!!!!!"

I cheered too, clapping for the boy's father. He won. The fight ended extremely fast compared to all others with the father lifting up his brother and squeezing...and the brother "tapping out" to indicate concession. It seemed, more than anything, a display for the boy...the one audience member who mattered in the audience of hundreds. A 5 second fight that involved merely lifting and a Tap Out and cheering from one...just one...very tiny section of the audience. But the section that mattered.

The boy and I cheered together and exchanged a high five.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Muskegon Cash Mob Gets Mention in Wall Street Journal

This here is the Wall Street Journal right here...AND a friend of mine who made it happen:

Similar cash mobs have materialized in more than 20 cities from Norman, Okla., to Muskegon, Mich., most arranged by individuals who establish followings on Facebook and Twitter. The cash-mob organizers don't get any benefit in return.



I don't know where to start. I'm so freakin' proud of my friend. Known her since we were kids growing up in the same church.

We founded a group called the West Michigan Jobs Group, which championed an offshore wind farm. This friend of mine, she's the Vice President of the West Michigan Jobs Group and she, among many others, worked tirelessly and without a cent of payment to raise support and awareness for renewable energy and a new industry in West Michigan. We successfully helped lure a 100 MW wind farm to the Waste Water Treatment Facility. This friend of mine...She and I, we've known each other since we were small kids in bible school at the same Slovak church.

Now I don't want to go claiming that her actions are mine, or ours. Her actions are hers. And they've made a difference in a small corner of America. And got National Attetnion. But she's one of Us. She's dedicated to making her town a better place to live.

She organized a Cash Mob that brought people to a little known part of our community, and has helped independent businesses raise awareness of what they do, and bring traffic to an economically hard-hit part of our community.

What's a Cash Mob?

It's a large, organized descent on an independent business to raise awareness of it, bring people to an under-served and under-represented part of the city.

The boys and I attended the cash mob in a particularly hard-hit part of Muskegon. And while there we discovered in the same area an Asian market where we can buy some well priced miso soup mix that my older seven year old son loves, and some tiny red hot peppers that I love, some delicious wasabi peas, and mung-bean cakes, and noodles. And of course, a restaurant called Mia and Grace which serves mostly locally made foods, down to the ketchup which is made in the store from locally grown ingredients. All along this little strip on 3rd street in a place I rarely visit......

...the Cash Mob brought me there. And I learned about a completely new region of the city.

Awesome.

Bravo, friend and VP of the West Michigan Jobs Group.

We are TOTALLY going to drag this hard-hit region out of hardship and obscurity. We're so freakin' sick of things being hard.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Parbolic Michigan Dunes In the Winter

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It's not just the Great Lakes themselves. It's not just the water, and the massive holes in the ground that cradle it. It's the world around the edges that the waters make possible. The susgar sands of Lake Michigan, the agate beaches of Lake Superior, the Niagara Falls between Erie and Ontario.

It's the edges. Where the oak and hemlocks decide, almost unanimously that they should stop and let the dune grass have a place of its own with the trees fomring a line along the dune ridge looking down, but rarely passing.

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Someplace between the waterline and the tree-covered hills in the interdune habitats built up over the millenia, is an ecosystem of its own. It inhabits a thin band just 100 feet wide in many places, but streches up the shoreline of Lake Michigan for hundreds of miles. Parabolic dunes, or "blowouts"expand the sandy ecosystem into the woods, here and there...where natural or man-mad erosion caused the underlying sand of a large dune to be exposed and the wind continuously removes the ground cover, back and back and back.

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The dune grass plays an important role in stabilizing the dunes. Keeping them put. Allowing the establishment of nutrients and soil and keeping the water down...Preparing them once again for the trees to move in as far as they'll dare.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Muskegon County Gained 900 jobs in 2011 - Unemployment Down to 8.4% from 11.5% Since Last Year

Muskegon County's joblessness numbers were down to 8.4% from 11.5% a year ago...and the lowest since May of 2008. So...huzzah! Unemployment is down. And SOME of the drop is due to GOOD reasons, rather than the "people are leaving the workforce" sort of way.

Past drops in the unemployment rate were caused by a reduction in the job market as people either left the community or were so discouraged that they stopped looking for a job, labor economists suggested.

November's continued decline in the unemployment rate was coupled with an increase in employment of 900 jobs to 74,600. Likewise, the number of unemployed in Muskegon County in November dropped 500 to 6,800.
So...there's that.

Gonna be a long trek back up the hill, though...

But since November 2006, Muskegon County has still lost 10,400 jobs – 12.2 percent of its work force.

Anyway...good news!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Blizzard

An interesting thing about snow is that it descends with an odd sort of parallax; The closer flakes fall faster than than the sleepy drifting ones further off, or so it seems. Wherever you stand. The closer they are, the more in a hurry. The snow beyond meanders peacefully, slowly, taking its time.

If you can focus beyond the floating white universe, if it's possible and if the snow isn't too dense, the snow flutters down in clear, vertical uniformity. Maybe a little more to the left or to the right in places, maybe a swirl here or there where the wind spins a pocket of the flakes about in some sort of dance, but they're all clearly compelled down at the same pace. But perspective is its own problem.

It's the darkest time of year. Even before the sun sets in the mid afternoon the cloud cover obscures the sun.

At two something AM my tiny Ford Escort sat stuck on a dirt road, tail lights illuminating the crisp reflective night time snow in red. Stuck as powdery snow dumped from the black sky. I'd bundled the sleeping children in the car after visiting with out-of-town family at my parents' house just as the snow began to fall, hoping to beat the storm. But no phone. I left that someplace else. The headlights, quickly covered over, showed only a dimensionless wall of white.

Stuck.

The two boys slept. The two year old and the four year old.

The smell of burning rubber and red lit steam billowed from the rear of the car from my efforts to rock it out of the bank. The bank. Not a bank. Ruts most of a foot deep going on and on. And only my own ruts from behind me, with those getting filled in. No ruts before me. Just snow. I pulled off my coat, sweating from trying to push the car and from digging behind the tires. My arms strained and ached. My hands slow from cold. My mouth tasted of iron from breathing hard. Each step in the drifts, a full lift of the leg, pulling it out of the snow.

I rested in the warm car, feeling the heat channel up out of my collar against my cold chin. I watched the boys from the rear view mirror, listened to their their soft breathing. The puffy flakes from the sky muffled the sound from all around. The only sound to be heard was our breathing and the engine and the collective sound of millions of snowflakes falling and falling and falling. I imagined the gas station up the road. Just a few miles by the highway junction. The McDonalds. Burgers. The kids would like that. The truck stop. Just a few miles up there. Almost absurd that it seemed so far off. I could probably even see it in the distance were it not for the blizzard.

A farm house. I'd burst into the farm house, a bundled child cradled in each, wind billowing my seal skin parka and snow flying through the door after me, my thick imaginary beard caked with ice...a kindly older lady would scream "oh my stars! Come in, come in! Warm your dear ones by the fire...Father! Draw them a hot bath, quickly now! Come...come, sit...have some brandy, you poor things!" And there we'd stay over the night. I'd shave and be a new man in the morning, I'd thank them kindly and ask how I could repay them, but they'd say their only payment needed would be to get an annual Christmas card photo of the dear little ones.

For all I could see a farm house could have been fifty feet off the road, or a thousand, through hip deep snow drifts. The previous year while hiking I lost a hat knit for for me by my wife, with the words knit into it "Hold On To Your Hat." I had gotten home and realized it was gone so I went back for it. I knew where it would be, where I had taken it off and thought I put it in my pocket, and made a bee line across the thigh deep snow drifts directly to where it would be, just 20 feet off the road in the State Park. I felt like my heart would explode by the time I got out there, and my muscles convulsed.

I turned on the Radio and listened to the weather advisory. Stay off the road, they urged. There's a blizzard. The national guard had been deployed. Hummers would be patrolling US 31 by early morning. I looked down at the gas again. Then back at the softly breathing boys.

Monday, January 2, 2012

First Snow of the Year

First real snow of the year. Several inches on the ground, staying and not melting. We bundled and trundled to the white and golden dunes with our sleds. A few other families pulled tiny people behind them in the thin plastic sleds of various colors, up the hills then riding down again. Up and down. Teenagers perched in the same place they always have, the highest peak slightly obscured from the rest of the sledding areas, down on snow boards, vaulting from snow crafted ramps.

Then home. Rekindling the fire to a blaze. Hot chocolate heated on the stove. Milk. Cocoa powder. Sugar. Vanilla. The four of us, in various stages of unlayering, sipped and giggled around the table. Fart jokes. Mostly fart jokes with the kids. A game of Candy Land. A book before bed.

New Years Resolutions

My new years resolutions:

-- Lost 30 pounds, already lost 20. Just need to lose 30 more.

-- No more reading news comment threads

-- Less hanging around in the political blogosphere

-- More fiction writing and creative non-fiction writing

-- Spend more time focusing on the family.

Yeah....that all sounds pretty good. I'll go with that.