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Cropping Up

Yes, this is another garden update. Hopefully the last for a while, as most of my plants are in the ground and sprouted now … if I can just get them to mature.

On April 19th, I planted rows of Detroit Dark Red Beets and Chantenay Carrots. The following day I transplanted thirty cabbage from where they were sown (Glory of Enkuizen strain) and a dozen Rutger Tomatoes, from 10-ounce cups to the garden. I also planted rows of green beans (local strain), Sugar Snap Peas, and radishes (local strain).

All seeds, except for the local strains, were purchased from Skyfire Garden Seeds, which I discussed in the Growing Pains post. All new plantings sprouted within days, with excellent germination rates, and are growing quickly.

Now, updates on other previous plantings. The yellow onions that were about 6 to 8 inches tall are now about 15, with shafts as big as my index finger. And are quite tasty. The potatoes which had just begun to show on my previous posting are about 6 to 8 inches tall, but more than half never broke the ground. Very disappointing results, especially considering at least half had begun to sprout before being put in. But they were just potatoes from the store, eyed and planted, and perhaps some were too old to grow properly (they were on sale) or engineered not to produce true (many fruits and vegetables are now). I’ve grown a lot of potatoes in my time and never had such trouble with them. Usually they and onions are the only “guaranteed” crop I have. Also had zero luck getting a sweet potato to sprout, and I think age is to blame. He was store-bought and to date has managed only one tiny, sickly sprout though he were started in mid-March. I’ve never had a sweet potato not sprout, but he comes the closest.

My Orange Sun Bell Peppers also seem to be behind, but we’ve had many very cool nights the last few weeks. On April 21st, I transplanted them from an open tray to a 10-ounce cup each. And I still set them in direct sun whenever possible, along with the tomato seedlings not yet big enough to transplant into the garden (though they soon will be). A few of the peppers look puny but most are straight and green, just small. But most of our cooler weather should be over and I’ve read peppers like warmth so hopefully they’ll perk up in the weeks to come.

Well, I think that gets the updates back up to speed. I’m waiting for the ground temperature to come up more before I plant anything else. And for more references to how it started out, see the Growing Pains post from a few weeks back. Happy gardening.

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I wanted to check up on Jericho, Arkansas. If you recall, I wrote about the town a few times last fall because the unarmed Assistant Fire Chief was shot by Jericho police during an argument between himself and the police chief in court. Jericho has a reputation as a speed trap, an over-abundant and over-eager police force for the town’s size, large gaps in its fiscal reporting, and a mayor accused of gross corruption. I was unable to reach legal counsel concerning the affairs of Jericho and was trying to locate news pieces about it when I ran across the town of Turrell and found an eerily similar situation. Fasten your seatbelts, kits and cats; it’s about to get strange and deja vu ain’t the half of it.

Turrell is an Arkansas town in the Mississippi delta, just off Interstate 55, a few miles up the road from Jericho and home to some 900 people. Though it’s too small to support it’s own school (it had to consolidate with the larger Marion school district), it’s problems are massive. In December, WMC-TV 5 out of Memphis, Tennessee, reported that three Arkansas towns were being investigated for the mishandling of money, including both Turrell and Jericho. This investigation was prompted by last autumn’s events in Jericho, which pointed to various corrupt and fraudlent activities being perpetrated by the mayor and police of that town.

Crittenden County, home of the three towns under investigation, put the Jericho matter in the hands of Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Fairley, who issued warrants against Assistant Fire Chief Don Payne, the victim in the shooting. Fairley charged no one else. His inaction prompted media to alert state officials and Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden began investigating the events with the state police. Less than three weeks after the WMC-TV article was published came a new and strange twist in the story: Turrell Police Chief Greg Martin entered the home of city councilman Floyd Holmes and threatened him at gunpoint. Just to be clear, yes, that was the chief of police, sworn to protect and serve, pulling a gun on an unarmed councilman, and his wife, in the councilman’s own home. Why? Good question. The answer is long and complicated but essentially comes down to one thing: money.

Just as in Jericho, Turrell’s mayor Franklin Lockhart is accused of hiding city funds and moving them at his discretion instead of allowing the city council’s involvement. It’s not the first time Mayor Lockhart has shut out the council. In fact, in October 2008, he fired them en masse … despite lacking the authority to do so. Floyd Holmes, among those “fired” in 2008, asserted that state law gives the council control over city finances. Mayor Lockhart reportedly contended that the council had no such power but, either way, Turrell entered the new year without a budget and suffered city service interruptions due to lack of information about the town’s financial status. Councilman Holmes said Mayor Lockhart had moved Turrell funds several times, even “across state lines in[to] Tennessee.” The mayor admits he moved the funds but so far won’t say where. According to one source, the city’s budget records have not been complete since 2006. Mr. Holmes said, “We’ve been begging for someone to do something for the last two and a half years.”

On the day of the Turrell incident, Mr. Holmes and other council member Emanual Harris showed up “unannounced” to city hall – with a couple reporters in tow – to retrieve their $100 paychecks as members of the city council. While there, they also asked for the city’s financial records which, as councilmen, they are supposed to be able to access. The records were not made available to them, though no one seems able to say why, and they were denied their paychecks, purportedly because the city did not have enough funds to pay them (according to Mayor Lockhart).

Their request, coupled with the presence of reporters, “rankled” other city officials, including the mayor, and after their appearance Mayor Franklin Lockhart reportedly issued a memo to the council members specifying when and why they could appear at city hall. Lockhart then reportedly directed Police Chief Greg Martin to deliver the notices in person. When Chief Martin arrived at the home of Councilman Holmes, an argument ensued. Chief Martin followed Mr. Holmes into his house and the argument apparently culminated in the police chief drawing his weapon on both Mr. Holmes and his wife while two interior decorators looked on.

Warrants were issued for Chief Martin and he was taken into police custody, charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault. He was released later the same day on a $2500 bond. (As a side note, I wonder what my bond would be if I were charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault against a city official? I’m willing to bet $2500 wouldn’t come close.) Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden, who took up the Jericho case, also stepped in for Turrell. “It’s my understanding, it stems from this ongoing dispute that’s been running between the city council and the mayor’s office,” he told Fox 13 News of Memphis. Mayor Franklin Lockhart has had little to say except that he stands by Chief Martin and describes him as an “outstanding” officer.

An ABC news article also provided this interesting little tidbit: “This comes just two months after Mayor Lockhart asked a judge to place a lien against the members of town council in the amount of $600,000. The mayor claims council members owe the town because they haven’t performed their duties.” Which seems deliciously rich since, by all other accounts, he has prevented them in their duties at every turn.

But then, things get really strange. (Because, yeah, everything’s been right as rain to this point.) Another article reports that Turrell is not supposed to have a police department. At all. The city council has never approved or budgeted “any money for the police department but they’re still up and operating every day,” said Emanual Harris. Co-councilman Floyd Holmes agreed. The men said they have no idea how the police officers in Turrell are being paid or how the force is operating without a budget. They went on to state that Chief Martin had been fired by the council months ago. So how is he still in uniform? Martin was re-hired by Mayor Lockhart. The re-hire was subsequently overruled by the council but was never acknowledged by the mayor or police chief. Harris says, “I want to see something or somebody come in and do something; it’s not right.”

Hopefully, prosecutor Mike Walden is the man for the job.

After bonding out of police custody, and while still under investigation, Martin remains acting chief of police for Turrell. And in relation, the town of Jennette, also in Crittenden County and also under investigation, exemplifies the gross malfeasance at work in the area. It has a population of less than 150 and cannot account for $24,000 dollars in taxpayer funds.

Something, dear readers, is badly amiss.

Growing Pains

In a post a few weeks back I noted that I had gardening on the brain and was determined to make it happen. I also said I would share my information in case it would be useful to some other poor reader out there. Let me preface what follows by pointing out that this is my first garden in years (years) and what I do may or may not be what is generally recommended.

First, I bought my seeds from a small distributor of heirloom varieties, Skyfire Garden Seeds. Turnaround was beyond excellent; I mailed my order and payment on a Monday and received my shipment that Friday. I also received two “thank you” packets free in my shipment and a hand-written note wishing me “a great garden this year.” I value that personalized touch. Even better, Skyfire beat both Burpee and Gurney’s prices on every variety I ordered, often by a landslide. So far, that puts Skyfire up by four-to-one (better products, customer service, turnaround, and price).

But the proof is in the pudding as they say, so with a handful of starter trays and a bag of potting soil, I got to work. (I’ll also note here that every seed packet contained more than the amount listed on the website, especially nice for those of us with a bit of black in their thumb.) On March 19th, three heirloom varieties of tomatoes were planted: Rutger, Pearson, and Long Keeper. They got a south-facing window in a garden shed and water but no special treatment (heat lamps, flourescent lights, etc.). On sunny days, I moved them outside for direct sun; nighttime temperatures stayed mostly in the 50s but dipped into the low 40s a couple times. On March 24th, Orange Sun Sweet Bell Peppers went in under the same conditions. The Pearson tomatoes sprouted earliest, on April 1st, followed quickly by the Rutgers and Long Keepers simultaneously on the 2nd. My Orange Sun Bells sprouted yesterday.

Together, the varieties have averaged a 95%+ germination rate, even with my unskilled plantings and less-than-ideal conditions. (And, in case they didn’t sprout, Skyfire offers a replace-or-refund guarantee.) March 19th also saw the open sowing of a cabbage variety called Glory of Enkuizen. They came up beautifully and thick as fleas; a few more nice days and they’ll be ready for transplanting. It’s a couple weeks until I’ll plant the rest of the seeds ordered but so far I am immensely pleased with the results and have nothing but praise for Skyfire Garden Seeds.

My garden growings also include yellow onions, purchased locally in sets and planted March 19th, and potatoes eyed from grocery store spuds. The onions are 6 to 8 inches tall; the few potato sprouts (about 4 in all so far) up are 1 to 2 inches.

I’ll keep posting from time to time and make notes, if only for myself. πŸ™‚ For further consideration, I offer up the abundant resources of Dave’s Garden, which is very friendly and helpful in all things sproutable. In signing off, I’d like to say that gardening is not much of a chore, and the proceeds greatly exceed the effort. Plus, it’s a nice way to stay a bit active, promote independence, and stick it to the man. How could anyone resist?

Kyrgyz Clashes

If you’ve watched the world news or read a bit online, you’ve probably seen something about the riots in Kyrgyzstan, a former USSR republic that borders China and just tried to oust its president. Protesting masses took to the streets demanding a change in government, the president fled, hundreds of police were summoned to quell the riots, and many people were hurt and killed. President Kurmanbek Bakiev maintains he is still in power. An interim government spawned by the riots and headed by Roza Otunbayeva also claims leadership and openly seeks Bakiev’s resignation. So, you’re up to speed on the basics. Now for the nitty gritty.

This is all about corruption and political malfeasance. A head of government makes some questionable appointments, arrests some influential people, utilty prices skyrocket, a populace feels cheated, and suddenly dozens of people are dead and hundreds are wounded. It’s an old story, but one we seemingly never learn from. I’ve done little research on the heart of the matter (this article seems a good place to start if you want to) but I did catch a Nightline spot which mentioned police firing into a crowd of protestors. Which is really why I’m posting about it. Because I find that disgusting.

I don’t really care what the government and or President Bakiev did. Yes, it was probably dirty, and almost certainly unfair to the Kyrgyz people … because that’s what governments are good at. But to allow, and even encourage, armed enforcers to use live ammunition on an unarmed population is inexcusable.

And I’m not talking handguns, or sharpshooters taking out the small number of protestors armed with weapons taken from other guards/police/etc. Witnesses describe them as automatic sub-machine guns, and video clips show them firing full-tilt in the direction of protestors. A government that will permit such an excessive use of force on its people cannot be endorsed with any moral conscience whatsoever. With various non-lethal choices available, there is no reasonable explanation for such an action.

An ABC News article reports that initial protests in the capitol city of Bishkek were met with just that sort of non-lethal force: rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, concussion grenades. But the attempts to break up the crowds were not focused and angry protestors fought back with rocks, sticks, and sheer numbers. They overpowered some policemen and took their weapons, even their vehicles at times. When they congregated at the government headquarters known as the White House (no, that’s not a typo), things turned ugly.

The ABC article does not discuss why the police didn’t concentrate their efforts on the White House to begin with. It seems logical to me, especially with a demonstration in the western city of Talas the day before where protestors entered a government building and took control, purportedly holding a governor hostage. With a clear voice, the opposition was calling for the president’s resignation, so it’s a pretty good bet that sooner or later the protests would center on the White House. It would not be difficult to encircle the building with police and keep non-lethal weaponry at the ready.

Whatever the reasoning, police forces were scattered ineffectually around the city as protests became riotous and protestors grew violent. An armored vehicle, seized by protestors, threatened to ram the gates of the White House. Six men in the crowd reportedly fired shots into the air as the people decried the government. Then a group of police opened fire on the crowd.

It wasn’t clear if these police were stationed at the government building or pushing into the protestors from another direction, and to the dozens killed I doubt it matters. It also wasn’t clear why no effort was made to disperse the crowd using non-lethal means. That group of police purportedly numbered 200, were classified as “elite,” and yet never sent so much as a single canister of tear gas into the protestors before they “began firing, pushing the crowd back.” In retaliation and further protest, a government office was set on fire and several others damaged.

Protests and demonstrations in other cities deposed local heads of government. Media outlets were overtaken to spread the word of protest and opposition. And so the president fled. An interim governing body was assembled. Protestors calmed and divided. And the country – the world – waits for resolution.

I applaud the Kyrgyzstani people in standing up to what they believe is an unjust and corrupt government. I admire their determination and resolute push to see change. I hope the resolution is fair and sets the nation on a road with less upheaval and more freedom and justice. And I hope the United States stays out of it.

For today’s consideration I offer up some statistics and information about two cancers common in both men and women, bladder and colorectal, along with some pointers about risk and detection.

For starters, how about a little definition of what exactly we’re talking about. First, the bladder. If you remember anything of biology or health and fitness classes, you might recall that the bladder stores urine until certain signals tell you it’s “full,” and then it contracts to help push the urine down the urethra and out of the body. Secondly, the colorectal area. Since they are connected physically and work in tandem as part of the digestive system, the colon and rectum are often grouped under the collective “colorectal” description. Essentially, the colon is the large intestine, and the rectum is the last six inches or so before the anus.

Okay, with the anatomy lesson over, lets get to the bits that actually matter. Bladder cancer is one of the more common cancers found in men and women but is rarely publicized. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), in 2009 some 52,810 new cases of bladder cancer were expected in men. Using Census Bureau population estimates, that means any given man had a 0.00035% chance of being diagnosed with a new bladder cancer. Those are whopping odds, I know; and, ladies, you’re numbers are even lower. For 2009, any given woman had a roughly 0.00012% chance of being diagnosed with a new bladder cancer. The 18,170 estimated new cases of bladder cancer in women in 2009 means that men are several times more likely to develop bladder cancer than women are. In fact, the ACS reports that “bladder cancer incidence is nearly four times higher in men than in women and more than two times higher in white men than in African American men.” Sorry Team Blue.

But don’t let the numbers get you down. For men, the cumulative chances of developing bladder cancer remain less than 1% until age 70 and beyond. Lifetime odds are less than 4%. And the odds of dying from it? One-fifth the chance of developing it. Women, as the earlier numbers indicated, have even less to worry about: bladder cancer odds never breach 1% by age group and is only 1.2% over the course of a lifetime. So not exactly a raging pandemic by any means. Which is especially good because bladder cancer has no good method of early detection. The most effective assessment of bladder cancer involves running an endoscope up the urethra and taking a look around. For obvious reasons, this is a procedure to be avoided unless you happen to fall among a high-risk group and or show troubling signs (especially painful urination or bloody urine). For the vast majority of us, this will never be a problem, so don’t concern yourself over it too much.

Colorectal numbers are higher. The ACS expected 75,590 new cases in men and 71,380 new cases in women in 2009, making it “the third most common cancer in both men and women.” Those numbers are also fairly even between the sexes, unlike bladder cancer. However, like bladder cancer and prostate cancer and breast cancer and most other cancers as well, the highest odds come later in life. “91% of [colorectal cancer] cases are diagnosed in individuals aged 50 and older,” reads the ACS statistics release. But it also related that in both men and women, the odds of developing colorectal cancer are less than 1% until age 60. Again, little reason to worry.

But if the 5 – 5.5% chance of developing colorectal cancer over your lifetime have you on edge, there are several methods of early detection. Most of us are familiar with the colonoscopy procedures as described (and sometimes filmed) on TV, where an endoscope is run through the large intestine in search of suspicious lesions or polyps. But if that’s too invasive for your tastes, you might consider a sigmoidoscopy, where physicians examine the rectum and lower third of the colon for abnormalities through a thin device called a flexible sigmoidoscope. It takes about 15 minutes, is less invasive, and can still take biopsies of anything suspicious. It’s recommended every five years and, like conventional colonoscopy, can occasionally (but not commonly) cause bleeding or tears in the intestinal walls, both requiring surgery to repair.

If those don’t fit your fancy, perhaps a double-contrast barium enema (DCBE) would do the trick. Recommended every five to 10 years, it involves a very thorough barium sulfate enema that physicians use to examine the lower digestive tract via x-ray. It exposes the patient to less radiation than a typical CT scan (also called CAT scan) and is somewhat less invasive than colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies. However, if you don’t mind an enema or the slightly higher radiation of CT or MRI scans, you might opt for the virtual colonoscopy. After an enema, a small tube pumps air into colon (for better differentiation) while CT or MRI scans provide images of the intestinal tract. It’s still less invasive than traditional colonoscopies but does not allow for biopsies or as thorough an internal view. However, it does allow for imaging of surrounding tissues and produces more accurate images than DCBEs.

But if you’re not fond of any foreign materials up the backside, you might just opt for the simplicity and complete non-invasiveness of fecal blood tests. There are two types but both are quite accurate and inexpensive. One type, called FOBT (fecal occult blood test), tests feces for the heme blood component (“heme” as in hemoglobin, part of our red blood cells). The other, called FIT (fecal immunochemical test), is more sensitive and tests for the globin blood component. Pre-cancerous polyps in the colon or rectum often bleed into the fecal matter passing through the digestive tract, which can be detected by these tests. They are simple enough to do at home and are sometimes handed out free of charge at proctology centers, clinics, and other medical service providers. Doctors recommend triple-testing to reduce false positives as the body expels small amounts of blood in feces under normal circumstances. But the tests return positive results for bleeding anywhere between the mouth and anus, so don’t automatically assume colorectal cancer even if there is blood. These fecal blood tests are considered a line of primary identification, as are the similar fecal DNA tests, but for conclusive diagnoses you’re still expected to see a doctor and perhaps choose a colorectal treatment of a more invasive kind.

I think the most important thing to remember is how unlikely these cancers are. And being diagnosed with cancer is a long way from dying of it. So keep an eye on yourself, and get your regular medical check-ups if you like, but don’t waste time and energy worrying about something so unlikely. No matter what you hear on the news.

Green Shoots

The phrase used by optimistic economists for the last year is starting to come to life. But I’m not going to talk about the economy, or politics, or even Team Blue (which, by the way, needs a mascot, I think … but Blue Devils is taken and I don’t think Blue Balls would go over well for either side, so I could use some input on that). With the Ides of March just around the corner and spring soon to follow, I’m talking about real green shoots, the kind full of chlorophyll that push up from the soil into the sun when the frost leaves and the ground starts to warm.

The resurgence of the “Victory Garden” over the last couple years has been nothing short of amazing. Some seed suppliers are finding themselves overrun with orders and the busy season is just getting started. Widely popularized during World War II, the Victory Garden is essentially a small vegetable patch for a family or similarly sized group of people, providing a source of wholesome food for very little monetary investment. With a less-than-stellar economic situation for millions in the U.S. over the last few years, these gardens have again become popular. For a few dollars worth of seed, a family can enjoy a supply of fresh vegetables for months to come. I’m joining the bandwagon this spring with big plans and elbow grease on stand-by … because one way or another there will be a garden outside my door.

I realized last summer how disgusted I was with the produce offered at local supermarkets. What hasn’t been dropped, crushed, bruised, poked, or otherwise beaten half-unidentifiable costs an arm and a leg. And if it happens to say “organic” on the label, just go ahead and triple the price, no matter how puny, shriveled, or misshapen the items might be. But price aside, that produce has also been doused with god knows what all kind of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and – I’m quite certain – people-icides. A few years ago I researched just what went into the classification systems of food products and was astounded at the lack of regulation in what we eat.

To begin with, the vast majority of fresh food in this country is imported, and not just exotics like bananas and mangoes but boring old staples like lettuce and tomatoes. Remember the spinach scare a few years back? Tons of produce tainted with E. Coli were shipped all over America and had to be recalled after people fell ill and some died. It had been imported. The government assured its people that it was an isolated incident. But food marketing in the U.S. is essentially an honor system. If Company A claims its goods are organic, they can market it as such with almost no oversight. Although there are reams of laws and stipulations that should be followed, the chances of enforcement are miniscule. No one is out there testing produce to see what chemicals it has come into contact with. No one is randomly sampling imports (or even U.S. produce) to see if it carries pathogens on its merry way to your plate. Caveat emptor indeed.

And what does all the spraying and genetic engineering and hybridization supply us? Judging from the local supermarkets, rubbish. Most of the produce is picked so green it could sit on display for a month (for those of you who may not know better, “fresh” produce should go off much quicker than that) and has all the subtle flavor of a cardboard box. In an age when I can fly halfway around the world in less than a day, including plane changes and layovers, why is my produce almost old enough to legally drink?

So this year I’m growing my own. Not a lot, but a good variety. And though I’ve a poor history with plants, I sincerely bet the result will be exponentially better than what I find at the store. Surely it can be no worse.

And in an effort to both encourage local business and “stick it to the man,” I’ll be using all heirloom seeds from a small supplier. (Gurney’s and Burpees be damned; I could never get a decent tomato out of them anyway.) When I’ve finalized my plans I’ll post them here just in case anyone should care to join the Victors with a garden of their own.

Oh, and you know what, if you’re tight on funds and worried about getting enough fertilizer for your garden … just use some of that bullshit Washington keeps shoveling at us. Lord knows there’s plenty of it. πŸ˜‰

Bad Driving

With the push to stop cell phone use while driving, and all the various photos and videos providing evidence of why some people should not be allowed behind the wheel, I thought I’d post something a bit lighthearted on the subject of driving.

At the charmingly named website “What the F*ck Zup Dot Com” resides an equally charming post (one year old today) with prime examples of bad driving results. In truth, some could be the result of bad luck, but most are not. So if you want to feel better about your own driving skills, or your children’s, or you’d like something to point at and say, “See, ma? I never did that…” then visit here. Oh, and don’t pay any attention to the headline, because apparently the WTF crew are just as skilled in counting as the drivers were in operating motor vehicles.

I particularly enjoyed numbers 3, 5, 12, 13, and 16 … and number 14 just because I find it pleasant to see a cop in the mud. πŸ™‚ Happy driving.

Number 3: