Sunday, July 28, 2013

In them old cotton fields back home

A week or so ago, my favorite wife mentioned that she didn’t like to wear cotton tops because they didn’t “breathe” as well as the “wicking” shirts that keep her cooler in the Arizona summers.

The way that my head works caused me to do a little more research on the cotton plant, and here’s what I found:

No one knows for sure when cotton first came into being, but cotton seeds dating back to 4500 B.C. have been found in both South America and India. It was first planted in America shortly after our independence from England, but it wasn’t until the invention of the cotton gin (in 1793) that cotton production accelerated in the United States. By 1830, the United States was the largest cotton producer in the world, and cotton exports exceeded the value of all other exports combined.

Cotton is now grown in 17 states. Surprisingly, Texas is the biggest cotton producer in the country, and the state of Mississippi is a DISTANT second. Cotton's business revenue to the U.S. economy is estimated to be $100 billion a year, nearly as much as the PROFIT that the Big Oil companies made in 2012. (As you’re probably aware, us taxpayers are STILL paying subsidies to the oil companies, to the tune of AT LEAST $2 billion a year.

Most of our cotton output (75%) is used to make apparel, although a LOT of it isn’t made here. Out of curiosity, I inventoried my closet earlier today to see how many of my shirts (or sweaters) were made in America. Out of 62 garments, only 3 were made in America. The balance were made in 24 different countries around the globe. Bangladesh and Mexico tied for top honors, at 7 garments apiece.

Today, the world’s leading producer of cotton is China, and India is not far behind. The United States is still in third place, largely due to the fact that the subsidies the cotton industry receives from the Farm Bill (officially known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008) allows them to sell cotton cheaper than they would be able to do so otherwise. Since 1991, the Federal government has paid $50 billion to cotton growers, and the subsidies have averaged $3 billion a year for the last decade.

The country that’s in 5th place in cotton production is Brazil, which has produced an interesting dilemma. If you’ve done any research on the disastrous Smoot-Hawley bill of 1930, you’ll recall that the tariffs that our government imposed to help domestic farmers set off retaliatory tariffs by other countries, and worsened the effects of the Great Depression. Due to the fact that Brazil feels we are “dumping” our cotton in overseas markets, the World Trade Organization has given Brazil the right to charge tariffs of $150,000,000 a year on products exported from America. In order to protect software producers, wheat producers, and other producers who would be hurt by the Brazilian tariffs, our government simply sends a check to the Brazilian government in that amount each year, which we started doing in May of 2010.

The original purpose of the Farm Bill in the 1930’s was to help out small farmers. Unfortunately, the current farm bill largely benefits large, politically-connected farms instead. As a matter of fact, fifteen member of Congress receive subsidies PERSONALLY from the government. One of the chief beneficiaries of the program is Tennessee Representative Stephen Fincher, who received $3.48 million between 1995 and 2012. The family business itself (Fincher Farms) received $8.9 million in subsidies in the last decade, and most of those subsidies are from the cotton program.

In a classic case of Tea Party hypocrisy, Fincher doesn’t believe in the food stamp program (SNAP), which is an opinion shared by Representative Doug LaMalfa of California. LaMalfa’s family owns a rice farm, and it has received $4.7 million in federal subsidies in the last 15 years.

Both Fincher and LaMalfa are on the House agriculture committee, which allows them to “grease their own palm”. Both of them cite Biblical references to justify cuts to the food stamp program. Like most selective readers of the Bible, they ignore passages that are far more applicable. In this case, a careful reading of Matthew 25:31-46 will reinforce the fact that these two individuals are dead wrong in their position on the food stamp program, which currently provides assistance to more than 47,000,000 Americans. In view of the fact that the average net worth of the Senators in Congress is $11,000,000, and the average net worth of the House of Representatives is $6,000,000, our elected officials REALLY need to pay a lot more attention to the words found in Matthew 19:24.

The Republicans in the House of Representatives have loudly proclaimed that the Farm Bill "needs reform". Surprisingly, they're actually correct. Between 2008 and 2012, the Agriculture Department's conservation program sent $10.6 million to more than 1000 people who had been dead for more than a year. In addition, the agency that administers the crop insurance program sent $22,000,000 to 3400 policyholders who had been dead for at least two years.

Their idea of reform, though, isn't the same as the one held by the rest of us. On July 11, 2013, the House of Representatives passed an agricultural bill that ELIMINATED food stamps from the Farm Bill, which marks the first time that food stamps have not been part of the bill since 1973 (when a REPUBLICAN named Richard Nixon got them put in). When asked about the food stamp program, House Speaker John Boehner said, “we’ll get to those other issues later”.

In contrast, this is what Nixon had to say about the issue when he addressed Congress in the late 1960’s:

"That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable.... More is at stake here than the health and well-being of 16 million American citizens.... Something very like the honor of American democracy is at issue."

Cotton has had a long and storied history in our country, which inspired a musician named Huddie Ledbetter (whose stage name is Lead Belly) to compose a song called “Cotton Fields” in 1940. Since that time, NUMEROUS artists have recorded the same song. Although the version by Johnny Cash is pretty good, my favorite is the one done by Credence Clearwater Revival (the guys who brought us “Proud Mary” and “Fortunate Son”):

In them old cotton fields back home.

After you’ve had a chance to enjoy the music, take a little advice from the 1976 film, Network. Get mad as hell about the Farm Bill, and write to your Congressman in order to achieve the FULL RESTORATION of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program in the Farm Bill.

In closing, here’s the updated version of “American Gothic”, courtesy of Stephen Fincher:

Monday, July 22, 2013

haggis, the horrible

One of my favorite comics strips is the one started by the late Dik Browne in 1973, titled Hagar the Horrible. After his death in 1988, his son Chris continued with the strip under his own name. The strip has done well over the years, and now appears in 1900 newspapers in 58 countries (including Norway) and has been translated into 13 languages.

The strip below was printed fairly recently. By no small coincidence, it happens to be related to “the topic of the week”.

If you’ve done any research on the ancient Vikings, you’ll discover that they enjoyed a healthy diet.To a very large degree, the food that they ate wasn’t markedly different from what we eat today, except for the fact that they occasionally ate horsemeat, and just about everybody drank ale (or mead) instead of water.

The ancient Scots, though, were a “horse of a different color”, and some of their favorite dishes will definitely give you pause.

One of those dishes is something called haggis, which was first consumed in the early 15th century . It’s now considered the national dish of Scotland, and it’s normally served with potatoes and a wee dram of scotch whiskey.

When you read what’s in it, you’ll probably say, “ yer aff yer heid”, which is translated as, “you’re crazy!”. I reviewed a couple of recipes online, and found them to be very similar. Here’s the basics:

You start with a thoroughly rinsed sheep’s stomach. To that, you’ll add a sheep’s liver, a sheep’s heart, a sheep’s tongue, onions, oats, salt, pepper, and spices. After cooking all the ingredients together for about 3 hours, it’s ready to eat!

Until this past weekend, I had never eaten any, simply because it didn’t sound all that appealing. However, since the Celtic Fest was in town again on July 20 and 21, I decided to try it, if only to say that I had done so. Naturally, I ordered a wee dram of scotch to go with it, and (so far) haven’t suffered any ill effects.

If you can envision eating meatloaf that tastes a bit like liver, you’ll have a pretty good idea what it was like.

Would I eat it again? I’m not saying that I wouldn’t, but I’ll also admit to the fact that it took me a long time to work up to calamari, which is actually a pretty good dish, even if it IS fried squid.

Naturally, there's a song about haggis, which I WOULD recommend listening to:

the haggis song

Monday, July 15, 2013

Let's talk about sex !

When I joined the Toastmasters organization in 1981, I quickly learned that the topics that you should always avoid are religion, sex, and politics. As a general rule, both I and my fellow Toastmasters managed to do exactly that.

In the past week of so, a couple of news items came to my attention that relate, to a degree, to all three of those topics, so I decided to do more research on them. I can assure you, though, that you are unlikely to be offended by any of the conclusions that I’ve reached.

On July 8, a Texas man named Cirilo Castillo was arrested for the 2nd time in 3 months for having sex with a horse.. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to recreate the act here, but a recent mug shot of him will confirm the fact that he’s not exactly the brightest guy that you’ve ever met:

Strangely enough, Texas does not have any laws against bestiality, so the only crime that Castillo could be charged with is animal cruelty, and then only if the animal had been injured. Even stranger is the fact that there were 13 other states (as of July of 2010) that had no direct prohibitions against the sexual assault of an animal. For now, the sheep in Montana are safe, but their cousins in Wyoming need to be extra cautious.

A few of the states mentioned in the link above are in the “Bible belt”, which is even stranger due to the fact the Bible has numerous references condemning bestiality. Some of those references even mention the penalty of death for the offense.

I recently became aware of the fact that Tracy Arnold, a legislator in Mississippi, had introduced a bill earlier this year (The Protection of the Person Act) which would ban the creation of "a human embryo into which a nonhuman cell or a component of a nonhuman cell is introduced, so that it is uncertain whether the human embryo is a member of the species homo sapiens." In view of the fact that Mississippi has the 4th worst school system in the country, my opinion is that he should be focusing on things that are actually IMPORTANT, but he obviously would disagree. Mississippi, incidentally, has the highest obesity rate in the country (34.9%) , but he’s apparently not concerned with that issue either, and neither is Paula Deen.

Even though I sold cars for a lot of years, Tracy Arnold is definitely a guy that I would NOT buy a used car from:

Not surprisingly, he’s a member of the Mississippi Tea Party, and has received an “A” rating from the NRA for the last 8 years. He and his wife Neecy are pastors at The Vineyard church in Booneville, Mississippi.

Mississippi isn’t the only state that is concerned about animal-human hybrids. Both Arizona and Louisiana already have laws on the books, and Ohio introduced a bill last year that would have imposed penalties up to 5 years in jail and a $1,000,000 fine for the offense. Surprisingly, legislation was introduced at the Federal level in 2009 by 21 Senators (including both of the Senators from Arizona), but the bill never made it out of the Judiciary Committee.

Tracy Arnold, as well as a few other people , would be surprised to learn that research involving inserting human DNA into animals has been going on for close to 50 years, but only to find cures for diseases. For some reason, I don’t think that’s a problem.

Rather than focusing on relations between animals and humans, our legislators should be focused on correcting the laws involving relationships with other humans.

For example, if you’re not concerned about the fact that your children might wind up with six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot, you’ll be interested to know that 18 states have virtually no restrictions on which of your 1st cousins that you can marry.

Prior to 1962, sodomy (including certain acts between married persons) was a felony in all 50 states. Over time, state laws against sodomy gradually went away, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the remaining 14 states that still had laws on the books were forced to remove them by the United States Supreme Court. Since not everyone is happy about the recent Supreme Court ruling that voided the Defense of Marriage Act, it wouldn’t be surprising if some states tried to resurrect sodomy laws.

The purpose of laws should be to protect innocent victims, which means that the laws that SHOULD be revised are the “age of consent” laws. Throughout Canada, the age of consent is 16. In America, the age of consent ranges from 16 to 18, and in parts of Mexico, the age of consent could be as young as 12. Nineteen states in America (including most of the “Bible belt”) set 16 as the age of consent. The actual effect of the laws is that they protect an adult who is having sex with a young girl from being charged with statutory rape. The penalty for statutory rape varies by state, naturally, but virtually ALL of them (with the exception of California) impose very strict penalties for the crime - up to 100 years in prison.

I’m not sure if Jerry Lee Lewis was ever charged with statutory rape, but he DID marry his 13 year old first cousin once removed in 1957, which led to a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” for his career.

Fortunately, the rate of births to teen mothers has continued to drop in America (to a rate of 34 per 1000 girls in the age of 15 to 19). The birth rate is lowest in New Hampshire, which has an “age of consent” of 18 and mandatory birth control training (starting in elementary school) and highest in Mississippi (are you paying attention, Representative Arnold?) , which has an age of consent of 16. Mississippi has NO requirements for its schools to teach either sex education or sexually transmitted disease education. For schools that choose to each either or both topics, they are required to stress abstinence-until-marriage.

Far too many of our state legislators seem to have a weak grip in understanding either human nature or human biology, as evidenced by the fact that Republicans in the Tennessee legislature introduced wording in a sex education bill last spring that defined kissing and holding hands as “gateways to sexual activity”.

You’ve just digested a lot of complicated information regarding a very complex topic (sex) so I’ll close out this article on a lighter note.

If you’ve ever wondered, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, the picture below can explain it to you:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

You can trust your car to the man who wears the star

Not long after I moved to Flagstaff, I noticed that some of the gas stations in town were labeled “Chevron”, which is a brand that did not exist in the 3 Midwestern states that I have lived in. To a very large degree, Chevron service stations are located in the Southern and Western states of America.

Out of curiosity, I did a little research on the Chevron brand name, and came up with some surprising information.

As it turns out, Chevron is a California-based multinational energy company that is active in over 180 countries. It is engaged in the oil, gas, and geothermal sectors, as well as in power generation. Along with BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total, it is considered to be one of the “Big Oil” companies.

At the end of 2012, it was the third largest corporation on the Fortune 500, and was rated the 16th largest public company in the entire world, according to Forbes Global 2000. The company’s revenue at the end of 2012 was $242 billion, and its PROFIT was $26 billion.

Although oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, the true start of the modern oil industry was at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont,Texas on January 10, 1901. The Spindletop oil discovery led to the foundation of the Texas Fuel Company, which marketed its products under the name of “Texaco”. (Six years later, the Spindletop gushers also led to the creation of a company called Gulf Oil.) Ultimately, Texaco became the only oil company to sell gasoline under the same brand name in all 50 states.

Most of us are familiar with the friendly Texaco man, and you may remember the Texaco commercials from long ago, when a trip to the “service station” meant that the attendant put gasoline in your tank, cleaned your windshield, checked the air pressure in your tires, your windshield wipers, your battery, your oil, your fan belt, and your radiator. The average price of a gallon of gas was 36 cents, and you probably got green stamps with your purchase.

Texaco ultimately became a well known brand, largely due to its sponsorship of the Texaco Star Theatre. When the show was on the radio, from 1940 through 1944, its host was Fred Allen. In 1948, the show switched to television, and it continued there until 1956. The new host of the program was a man named Milton Berle, who quickly earned the nickname “Mr. Television”.

Surprisingly, the roots of Chevron Corporation go back even further than the Spindletop discovery. In 1879, the Pacific Coast Oil Company discovered oil at the Pico Canyon Oilfield north of Los Angeles. The company was sold to the Standard Oil Company in 1900, which ultimately became the Chevron Corporation in 1984. The new Chevron Corporation also absorbed what used to be known as Gulf Oil. In the year 2000, Chevron acquired the Texaco Corporation., and the vast majority of the Texaco gas stations were divested to the Shell Oil Company.

Every time that gasoline prices spike higher, somebody comes up with the bright idea that boycotting gas stations will somehow bring about lower gasoline prices, and snopes has covered a number of those schemes over the years.

As recently as the summer of 2011, Michelle Bachmann (the queen of crazy) was promising voters that she would bring back gasoline that was priced at $2.00 a gallon, even though the price of gasoline is determined on the world market.

Today, the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline is $3.48, not much more than it was a year ago.

A more important issue than gas prices, though, are the subsidies that oil company’s continue to get from the Federal Government. At the end of the third quarter of 2012, the combined profit for the “Big Oil” companies was $90 billion, and Chevron was the 2nd most profitable on the list. By the end of 2012, the Big Oil companies had received tax breaks in excess of $2 billion, and the House budget of 2013 would increase those tax breaks by an ADDITIONAL $2 billion.

To protect their largess from the taxpayers, the Big Oil companies have spent $100 million on lobbying expenses since 2011. These expenses also were aimed at blocking pollution controls and safeguards for public health.

All by itself, Chevron has contributed $15 million towards the lobbying expenses. Of this amount, $2.5 million was donated to the Republican Leadership Fund Super PAC, which is closely tied to House Speaker John Boehner.

Apart from general lobbying expenses, the oil and gas companies contributed $15,000,000 in PAC contributions to Federal candidates in 2012, which means that the subsidies aren’t likely to end any time soon.

If that makes you mad (and it should), consider these facts:

1) the number one contributor to the PACs in 4 of the last 8 election cycles (going back to 1998) is none other than Koch Industries. In the other 4 election cycles, the company was either the 2nd or 3rd largest contributor. Koch Industries has provided organizational and financial assistance to the Tea Party, and the company would make a handsome profit if the Keystone XL pipeline ever got built.

2) 86% of the PAC contributions have gone to Republican candidates, and 14% have gone to the Democrats.

3) In January of this year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election war chest received $131, 500 in campaign contributions from oil donors in Midland, Texas. Three days later, a bill to repeal subsidies to oil companies failed by filibuster.

When I was a boy, the typical Texaco gas station looked like this ..

.., and you really COULD trust your car to the man who wore the star. Today, we all need to pump our own gas, and none of us are as trusting as we used to be. Green stamps, of course, are now a thing of the past.

As of last fall, 60% of the American population had little or no trust in mass media, which is the only logical explanation of why FOX News is as popular as it is. Our approval rating of Congress has now sunk to an all time low of 10%, a level that is BELOW our approval rating of cockroaches.

In spite of the gloom and doom in the paragraphs immediately above, it actually IS true that we can still trust the man who wears the star. According to the Wisconsin Police Journal, law enforcement officials have a 90% public approval rating.

There are exceptions of course, one of whom is shown below, but, hey, it’s refreshing to have at least SOME good news in today’s environment.

Monday, July 1, 2013

You get your kicks .. on Route .. 66 ..

On most days of the week, I spend at least a few minutes driving on “the Mother Road”, since part of the original Route 66 goes right through the heart of Flagstaff.

Route 66 was in the news recently, due to the fact that the State Highway and Transportation officials officially decertified the highway on June 27, 1985, bringing to a close its 59 years of service as a gateway to the West.

Much has been written about the road over the years, and numerous artists have performed their own version of the song that was pioneered by Bobby Troup in 1947. The The Rolling Stones did THEIR version in 1964.

Todd and Buzz, of course, brought fame to the road during the TV series that ran from October 7, 1960 to March 20, 1964, but public recognition of the route first came about due to the publication of “Grapes of Wrath”, a novel by John Steinbeck, in 1939, and the release of the movie with the same title a year later.

The 2006 Pixar film, Cars, brought the old road’s magic back again, but nothing that you’ve seen, or read, will ever answer a very basic question, which is how in the world did the direction of the route get selected?

The answer will surprise you, and it’s related to another tale that some people may consider to be far-fetched.

The solid fuel booster rockets that were used in the Space Shuttle were limited in size due to the fact that they had to fit through a railroad tunnel between their place of manufacture and the launch site. The tunnel was slightly wider than the standard railroad gauge of 4 feel and 8.5 inches. If we went far enough back in time, you’d discover that that peculiar measurement happens to be the width of the back end of 2 Roman horses. The “rest of the story“, of course, is that a major design feature of the most advanced transportation system the world had every seen was determined by the width of a horse's ass!

There’s an element of truth to the story, but it actually is just another one of those urban legends.

The story of the route of Route 66 seems just as far fetched, but it’s absolutely true.

In 1857, President James Buchanan appointed a former military general named Edward Fitzgerald Beale to build a 1000 mile wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to the border of California and Arizona. As an experiment, the survey incorporated the use of camels, which had first been proposed by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1853. The survey team ultimately used a team of 25 camels imported from Tunisian, and the lead camel driver was a man named Hadji Ali, a Greek-Syrian convert to Islam.

The wagon road that Beale eventually got built became a popular immigrant trail during the 1860’s and 1870’s. The general route of Beale’s wagon trail was later followed by Route 66, the Sante Fe Railway, and Interstate 40.

In the final analysis, if you really want to thank the REAL founders of Route 66, you’d have to thank the Muslims, as well as the guy pictured below: