Another Key Blog

November 25, 2012

As I’ve explained several times before, the key blog is play on key log—the one that holds everything else together. In the days of the great cutover, the key log is the one that has to be dislodged in order to break up a log jam so that the rest of the logs can float down the river to the saw mill. Loggers did not want to keep log jams together. They wanted to break them apart, and finding the key log was crucial to this purpose. When the key log is removed, the lock opens up, things fall apart and we go on our merry way.

I don’t know when people started using the expression “key log” to describe something that you want to keep in place because it is central to holding something together that you want to keep together—like maybe an argument that you are trying to make. I don’t even know that this is a very typical use of the expression “key log”. The fact that I’m using up so many pixels on your screen to explain the concept suggests that maybe it isn’t very familiar at all. If you knew what I was talking about when I started talking about key logs (much less key blogs) then you wouldn’t need me to conduct a brief lesson on cutovers (to wit, a crucial episode in the history of Michigan), or the logging industry (to wit, a crucial part of Michigan’s economic development) in order to explain the idea. Unless maybe it was just another ridiculous Thornapple blog tangent, introduced primarily for comic effect, but that isn’t what I had in mind this week.

It’s possible that Aldo Leopold his own self came up with this. Here’s what he wrote in his essay “The Land Ethic”:

One of the requisites for an ecological comprehension of land is an understanding of ecology, and this is by no means co-extensive with education. … The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against these “modern” trends.

The key-log which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise

Well come to think of it, Leopold doesn’t say that “integrity, stability and beauty” is the key log that holds things together. Like that Michigan logger, he’s thinking of the key log as the one that needs to be discarded. Not long before this passage, Leopold describes another obstacle to a land ethic as “the attitude of the farmer for whom the land is still an adversary or a taskmaster that keeps him in slavery. Theoretically, the mechanization of farming ought to cut the farmer’s chains, but whether it really does so is debatable.”

So it looks like I was confused back in 2009 when I talked about a key log as something that holds things together in a positive way. Maybe was the one who first used the expression “key log” that way! It would certainly explain why I find myself explaining things some three years later. Nevertheless, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” That’s supposed to be one of the key ideas behind the CSA movement. Whether a CSA really does preserve the stability, integrity of the biotic communuty (or whether it keeps us in chains) may be debatable.

And that’s the sobering thought for the day this year’s Sunday after Thanksgiving. Sorry for that!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Twink, Twink

November 18, 2012

With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up later this week, the newspaper is chock full of food stories. In addition to the obligatory turkey jokes, there’s an item in the Lansing State Journal on food-related business incubators, and another on the completion of a lawsuit over contaminated meat. However, one of the most alarming stories comes from J. M. Hirsch, Food Editor at the Associated Press. It raises the specter of a Thanksgiving without Twinkies. As I’m sure all my robot readers know, Twinkies were served at the original Thanksgiving celebration between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. We know that it occurred in 1621 because some 17th century graffiti artist hacked that date into a big rock on the shore at Plymouth, Mass.  But history has lost track of some key details that are essential to this event—like was it the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag who brought Twinkies to the first Thanksgiving? Although I would like to devote today’s Thornapple blog to resolving this important question, even my research is inconclusive.

The case for a Pilgrim-led first Thanksgiving Twinkie is quite weak. Although there are exhaustive logs of materials that were brought to the North American continent on the Mayflower, there is no mention of Twinkies in these logs. One scholar, Heinous T. Balbriggen, speculates that consumables might have been left off the log altogether, but his speculation is refuted by numerous references to smoked meats and hardtack. It is, however, possible that the entries for hardtack in the Mayflower logs actually were references to Twinkies. The main reason for this is that both the traditional cracker-like hardtack made from flour, salt and water and the Hostess Twinkie, a spongecake filled with a non-dairy vanilla cream, are putatively indestructible. Although the literally infinite durability of these foodstuffs is doubtful, both have been shown to have useful shelf lives of several years with no detectable decline in quality.

If Twinkies had been brought to the Thanksgiving feast by Wampanoag, there are crucial issues that are virtually inexplicable. How would the Wampanoag get the vanilla-cream filling into the sponge cake? Hirsch’s AP story notes that in the early years, the Hostess Company inserted a series of different fillings (fruits and banana creame) into the spongecake fingers one at time using small nozzle on a foot-controlled air pump. No one has ever offered a satisfactory explanation of how the Wampanoag—known for their proficiency in farming practices—would have developed the dexterity needed to gently cradle the small spongecake fingers in their palms while feathering the foot pump in order to achieve just the right velocity for vanilla cream to saturate the center of the cake without causing it to explode.

And if the nightmare of exploding Twinkies were not enough: Although the Wampanoag were potentially capable of acquiring sufficient quantities of cellulose by dissolving hemp fibers in alkali, there is no record of them ever extruding the viscose thereby obtained through a narrow slit, or of washing the thin film of viscose in a bath of sulfuric acid and sodium sulfate. Hence, there is no reason to suppose that any foodstuffs manufactured by the Wampanoag could have been wrapped in cellophane. We also have no archeological evidence of cellophane in the middens around the Plymouth region. There is, however, a brief reference to Plymouth colony governor William Bradford singing the lyric, “A human being’s made of more than air, With all that bulk, you’re bound to see him there, Unless that human bein’ next to you, Is unimpressive, undistinguished. You know who…” during a skit performed at the first Thanksgiving in order to kill time while the gravy was thickening. Since the modern chorus to this lyric goes on to reference “Cellophane, Mr. Cellophane,” many scholars presume that Bradford was inspired the numerous discarded Twinkie wrappers littering the table.

Hirsch writes that the Hostess Company, manufacturer of Twinkies since the 1930s, is being dissolved after declaration of bankruptcy. Trademarks for their iconic food items are up for sale. (There’s actually a serious labor story to tell here, but frankly I’m not up to it this morning.) Readers who have not already done so should rush to the corner market for their Thanksgiving Twinkies this year, as there will be no more manufactured until some other giant in the industrial food system steps in to fill the void.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University



November 11, 2012

It’s been quite a few months since I expended the entire blog on a bitter personal vendetta against robots. Well, maybe I’m able to make some putative connection to the Thornapple CSA’s nominal orientation to food issues most of the time. And as someone with advanced training in logic and the theory of knowledge, I can safely say that I haven’t really given the entire blog over to personal vendettas, even on those earlier occasions. I always make room for the obligatory tangent, you know, and I’m perfectly capable of taking that tangent into the realm of pumpkin pie filling or weeds. And weeds are a central topic for food ethics, even if that gets missed by some of those mollycoddle food bloggers who are focused on recipes and the aesthetics of artisanally grown coffees.

So I’m going to indulge myself on robots for a few paragraphs this fine, sunny November morning in mid-Michigan. Both of my regular readers will remember that if you write and maintain a WordPress blog, that has a “Comments” window (and if you peruse down the page you will see that this is indeed the case for the Thornapple Blog), you are going to get between 60 and 300 comments posted to the blog every week. While this might initially make you think that this is a reason to think that you are being taken seriously by legions of Internet surfers, or at least as an occasion for mockery and amusement, you would be sadly wrong in drawing such an inference. And you would be wrong because the Blogosphere has become a zone that is used primarily to boost the search ratings for various commercial and political websites. It seems that the function webheads refer to as “search” revolves heavily around the “ratings” that various websites achieve through, on the one hand “hits” and other hand “links”.

Now if you are a similarly aged hunk of cheese to myself, you might think that a hit is either a frequently purchased ditty from “The Top 40” or alternatively an activity not entirely unrelated to the aforementioned food ethics topic (e.g. weeds), though in this case quite indirectly so. And you might think that links is a reference to the game of golf. But once again, if you did make such inferences you would be wrong, because in this a case a hit occurs every time some unsuspecting webhead loads a page, and a link (as I’m sure both my readers actually know quite well) is an embedded bit of code that will take you from one webpage to another. Search engines have to come up with some algorithm for determining which pages come up first in the results page, and they do this (in part) by counting hits and links, under the assumption that both hits and links are in some vague sense indicators of the value or relevance that actual human beings associate with a given webpage.

So there is a large and clever industry that has developed around multiplying the number of hits and links. If you post a comment that has an embedded link (like for example, a signature that takes one to a website advertising cheap Louis Vuitton knock-offs) then every time some unsuspecting blogger such as myself “approves” the comment, posting it on the blog site, then one creates a spurious link to the site. If one does this enough, it can quite dramatically affect the rating that the various search programs give to one’s website. There’s also an even more nefarious activity of writing automated programs that create “blogs” consisting entirely of random text copied from other places, then building up ratings by automatically posting comments to these meaningless ogg blogs that are approved by a robot administer and that multiply the hit rate dramatically. It means first that anyone who doesn’t play this game (though the masters of search are onto it) is going to be confined to a rather glorious obscurity in the blogosphere, and it means second that those of us who do actually write legitimate blogs (I note parenthetically that this has nothing to do with the views of defeated Misssouri Senatorial candidate Todd Akins) are going to spend an hour or two a week going through all these spurious “comments” to our blog in order to decide what to do about them. Try Googling the phrase ‘this is getting a bit more subjective’ if you don’t believe me.

As I’ve explained before, unless you write something in the comment box that gives me pretty strong evidence that you read the blog and are responding to it, I just delete the comment. Not that you have to respond in a particularly thoughtful or intelligent way (apologies to any of you who do comment on the blog if you take this qualification personally—I didn’t mean it that way, really). So if you post a comment like “Needed to send you that bit of word to finally say thank you over again on the great pointers you …” it just goes into the trash. There are no stinking pointers in the Thornapple Blog! Or even a seemingly pleasant one like “I love to read this kind of blog, nice and attractive information I take from it,” which actually turns out to have a link to a porn site embedded in it. (Checking out the links embedded in my commentators’ signature occasionally turns out to be the most exciting part of my week, but at the end of the day, they don’t really need any help from me.)

But every now and then, a robot says something that’s kind of funny, so I break down and approve the comment, like I did a couple of weeks ago. Apology to real-live readers who weren’t actually looking for a dentist in the Nethelands or another porn site, but someone who signs themselves “Best Automated Blog Commenter”… How can I resist that?

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State Univesity

Power Failure

November 4, 2012

It’s November and Thornapple CSA has completed another successful year. Things got off to a slow start in 2012. The lack of any serious winter weather last year was combined with a late frost. As we’ve noted in the blog before, it was a terrible year for Michigan agriculture on the whole. The fruit trees blossomed too early and the cold temperatures zapped them. Then there was hot weather and the summer drought. That pretty much did the corn crop under—not that corn is a big item for the Thornapple CSA. But farmers across the southern tier of Michigan suffered huge losses on corn in 2012. Some of the more fortunate ones had some soybeans in the ground that were able to get a little benefit when the rains recovered (weakly) in late July and August. But between the fruit crops along the lake and the conventional commodity growers downstate, it was just a mean year for Michigan farmers.

Appleschram—the farm where Thornapple CSA operates—was smack dab in the middle of the area most affected by hot weather and drought. We wound up starting a week late in the spring and made up for it with a double share on Halloween. CSA members will be bringing squash up out of the basement for weeks. We suffered with some scraggly broccoli over the summer—a bitter pill that improved with some soaking in salted water. But hey! That’s the CSA way. Lest geographically or agronomically challenged readers forget, a key premise behind community supported agriculture is that eaters and growers share some risk, as well as sharing the bounty. So when that influx of Colorado potato beetle shocks the eggplant, it’s not just the farmer who takes the hit. We’ve paid up at the beginning of the season, and we’re supposed to just grin and bear it.

Which brings me to the main subject of this week’s blog. I hardly ever watch much commercial TV, but I was fortunate enough to turn it on long enough to receive an important public service announcement yesterday that was brought to us by a couple of political action committees (e.g. PACs) that have been organized by rich white guys who are frustrated because they haven’t been able to foreclose on bankrupt homeowners or ship jobs to China quite as rapidly as they hoped to. It turns out that all of these woes are the result of Obama’s failed economic policies! And not only late frosts and summer droughts, virtually every evil that has befallen the human race in recent memory is due to Obama’s failed economic policies. Are you feeling anxious about declining social indicators like America’s math and science literacy? Are you concerned that measures of social inequality rose steadily over the last decade? Worried about the way country after country passes the U.S. on standard indicators of well-being such as infant mortality and life expectancy? Disappointed in the Spartans, the Tigers or the Lions? Yep, it’s all because of Obama’s failed economic policies.

The only thing these public service announcements failed to mention was the hurricane. Maybe some of you heard about the hurricane. It was apparently some sort of divine retribution wreaked on blue states. But I’m just speculating here, because my sources of information failed to mention the possibility that changes in climatic patterns and an uptick in extreme weather events could have any kind of rational explanation at all. Let’s just keep pumping out that CO2 as fast as we can. And if we aren’t pumping fast enough, you know why. (Psst. It’s Obama’s failed economic policies).

Of course, I’m completely non-political in the Thornapple blog.  In fact I was relieved to be told why my broccoli was bitter this summer. I was able to sleep better, and understanding that alleged diet and obesity are almost certainly due to failed economic policies encouraged me to go downstairs and make a huge bowl of buttered popcorn before going to bed, too. Like all the other Tiger fans, I snuggled under the covers and started dreaming about next spring, when I’ll hope that the offense matches the pitching and then write yet another check to the Thornapple CSA while crossing my fingers about late frosts and summer droughts.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University