Thursday, December 27, 2007

Wrong responses to a wrong action (re: Bhutto assassination)

Violence is erupting all over Pakistan in response to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. What does this prove? It may prove that people are distraught. It may prove that criminals and hooligans are using the assassination as an excuse to do mischief. It does prove that the many who had nothing to do with the assassination are going to suffer the actions of the few. The people who depended on buses are now going to have fewer buses because mobs have burned buses; these are most likely the poorer people. The middle class who had saved for a car now have lost much of their savings. People of all kinds who need the paychecks from their jobs are not going to be able to get to their jobs.

A more proper response would be vigils around the headquarters of those who preach hate.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif threatens to boycott the Jan. 8 election. A boycott of an election throws the result to those you oppose. A more proper response is to get out the vote. Make sure all your supporters show up. If you don't show up, you can't be counted. Make sure news outlets know your supporters are showing up. Make sure they are interviewed at polling places. Pakistan still has some media independence. See

Hold the government's feet to the fire on the investigation. Provide all the information possible. Ask for frequent updates.

Hold the extremists' feet to the fire on their actions. If they truly believe in Islam, show how their actions are contrary to Islam.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Nuclear wolves in carbon-neutral sheeps' clothing

The January-February 2008 Utne Reader has a cover article on "The Nuclear Option, Pros, Cons, and Corporate Spin". It points out that some environmentalists are considering nuclear energy as a way to put less carbon in the atmosphere. Of course, nuclear energy proponents have pointed out the same thing.

But there are two things that keep getting downplayed. One, what happens to the waste? Two, what is the true efficiency of nuclear reactors?

First, where does the waste go? Nobody seems to have a good, safe solution. I did a web search on nuclear waste, adding the keywords Japan, France, and Sweden because these countries derive a larger percentage of their energy from nuclear plants. I didn't find anything positive. In fact, a Japanese mayor lost his job because he proposed a study of using his city as a nuclear waste storage area. It seems that nuclear waste just keeps getting palmed off on somebody else, with no guarantees for safety for thousands of years.

Second, what is the efficiency of nuclear reactors? One measure is the amount of usable energy obtained versus the amount of non-captured heat given off. I came across this question when I saw the CNET article "A personal nuclear reactor? Not so fast!"

The article discussed a proposed nuclear reactor for factories or neighborhoods. It said the 200 kilowatt electrical output gives off 5 megawatts of heat. That still sounds like global warming. Consider the size of the cooling stacks of nuclear plants. That steam coming from those stacks also means a lot of water is being dumped into the atmosphere. This also means less water for drinking and irrigation.

A Republican president proposed an interstate highway system that transformed our culture. The rationale to get it through Congress was not transportation efficiency or creation of jobs, but defense. It would greatly increase the ability of the military to move troops and equipment around the country. Unfortunately, it was counterproductive to our defense because it made us hostage to countries with oil.

We now need a president of any party to cast energy conservation and energy independence as important to our defense. There are plenty of journalists pointing this out, but very few politicians seem to be reading them.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Many people rail against NAFTA and CAFTA, equating "free trade" with large corporations running roughshod over poor people. Free trade means it is free for all participants. That is, all participants are free to enter and exit the market, they have free access to all the information they need, and they do not cause harm or cost to non-participants in the transaction.

If so-called "free-trade" agreements do not meet these criteria, then they should be rewritten to do so.

If NAFTA and CAFTA are free-trade agreements for North America and Central America, is HAFTA a free-trade agreement for Hemisphere of the Americas?

No, HAFTA is a free-trade agreement we make with ourselves concerning our own "free-time". We freely choose to do something and then we get sucked into it so much that we hafta do it. Our WANNAs become our HAFTAs.

A few personal cases.

This blog has become a HAFTA. I like to write and I like to share what I write. If I wanna have people read what I write, I hafta to keep writing so they come back. This is true with my Reader Weekly column, print and online, and with my Flickr photos.

I wanna improve my singing ability, and so I take voice lessons. So, now I hafta practice regularly so I show some improvement, no matter how small, when I show up for the next lesson.

We wanna heat with wood to reduce our need for fuel oil. So we hafta cut and haul wood, hafta build a fire in the fireplace insert, and hafta regularly clean the glass and empty the ashes. Oh, for the days of cheap gas or oil when one just set the thermostat and paid the bills. Oh well, we have dropped our monthly budget payment for oil by $26/month, and maybe more now that we are using better wood (dryer, not better species).

Now I'm stuck in another wanna that became a hafta. In rebelliion against all these other haftas, I decided to read and watch Harry Potter as much as I wanna. Once I take a book out of the library or rent a DVD, hafta read or watch.

I wanna do nothing. Oh, oh! Then I'll hafta! How am I going to eat?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Two lessons from Harry Potter

As I work my way through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I notice two particular themes.

The first is the abuse of power. Dolores Rose Umbridge (she who gives sorrow and umbrage?) is the prime example in Book 5. She delights in lording it over others giving sorrow and pain as often as she can. Although her power may be in order to serve the Dark Lord, she seems to delight in using it for its own sake.

Draco Malfoy (Dragon->Snake Bad-Faith) has been intimidating others from Book 1, just for the sake of showing he is superior to them as a "pure-blood" wizard.

Snape uses power to avenge the ill-treatment of those who abused power when he was in school. But so far, we aren't aware of his turning on his abusers, just passing the abuse on to others. Do unto the new generation as the old generation did unto you.

The giving and taking points to and from a "house" in general is arbitrary power. The many gain or suffer from the actions of a few. This power seems to be exercised by whim, whether a teacher wants to give praise or wants to punish, punish, and punish.

The second theme is that power is not all-powerful. Despite all the miraculous, wondrous things the wizards and witches can do, they don't seem able to make the plumbing work and a whole lot of other ordinary things. Carpets are threadbare, ghosts pull pranks on the students, and buses don 't even have fixed seats.

I may be bringing my own bias in, but I think J.K. Rowling is calling for society at large to spend more time on governance than posturing. Rather than showing we are a superpower or that we are not going to knuckle under to the developed countries or that we have to be sure our group gets a bigger "slice of pie" we should just make things work for as many people as possible.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Voluntary compliance works?

George W. Bush has made a big thing of getting voluntary compliance from large corporations to foster the public good.

I wonder if these same corporations will depend on volunteer compliance from their cashiers in making sure their registers balance at the end of the day.

More on "You can't sell cake without frosting"

I sent "You can't sell cake without frosting" to Russ Stewart with a copy to Councilors Greg Gilbert and Don Ness, the latter mayor-elect. Councilor Stewart responded with:

Nice analogy. I like frosting on my cake. I also like the arts.

My question to you is what would you cut? I'm not trying to be snotty, but rather to get ideas from people. There's no limit to the good that can be done with money. But there is a limit to the money.

Thanks in advance for your ideas,

I took up his challenge and responded with:
Hi, Russ,

Thanks for your fast and reasoned response.

As to what to cut, it is very, very hard to find something that is not really essential to having a great city. Maybe the amount of paper used by the city? Given the heavy use of electronic communication, there could be significant savings in paper and postage.

For example, extend Comfort Systems EasyPay to online statements and letting customers pay online. We don’t like automatic transfers, preferring to know how much we owe before we pay.

An aside, don’t have studies for naming. I was in a focus group for “Comfort Systems”. Few of us really liked the name but were browbeat into selecting something among the choices. Thanks for the $50 cash:)

Maybe examine how many city-paid cell phones there are and how much private use is made of them. Do all users of cell phones have to be constantly available. I know that people who have to change schedules at the drop of a hat need to contacted, but would a private radio network be sufficient? If cell phones are issued, would pay-as-you-go be more cost-effective? Maybe not issue cell phones at all because so many people have them anyway. Did the city ever pay for line telephones for people who needed to be reached at home?

Encourage telecommuting for employees who need not show at office or counter.

Here’s a biggie: reduce heat and air-conditioning. It may already have been done, but set thermostats at 68 or less for heating or 77 or more for air-conditioning

Have city employees take the bus instead of using cars. Some will need more flexibility, but many will be going to and from destinations on bus lines. This also has the benefit of increasing bus ridership which could increase service which could increase ridership which...

Now, my “snotty” answer. The best thing to cut is the Taxpayers League and its ilk. Seriously, anti-tax people have created a climate for minimalist government turning Minnesota in Ed Raymond’s Missisota. [Ed Raymond is a columnist for Duluth's Reader Weekly and Fargo-Moorhead's High Plains Reader.]

A kinder answer but just as difficult to implement is reverse the system of taxation. The Federal government taxes too much and the local governments tax too little. Duluth should not have had to get Federal funding for the Ninth Street Bridge. That is a local project which should have been paid with local dollars. I think local governments are going to be strapped to make their places good places to live as long as they have to beg states and the Federal government for so much of their funds. These entities are stealing our frosting! No, they’re stealing our bread and making us beg for it back.

I hope there is something in this ramble that you can use practically.

- Mel

My portal to my writings and photos is
Russ Stewart responded with:

Thanks for taking my request seriously. These are some good ideas! I will pass them on to the administration for consideration, including Mayor Elect Ness, who I am CCing on this email. My time remaining on the council is limited, but I'm hopeful that some of your suggestions
can be implemented by the new council and administration.

Russ Stewart

PS I have to admit that I have turned into a bit of an anti-tax kind of guy. I've seen too many abuses to remain sympathetic even though some taxes go to do some good things. I certainly agree that the Feds are the most egregious offenders.
Oh, the advantages in living in a small city. You can engage in a dialog with politicians without getting boiler plate responses.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You can't sell cake without frosting

The Duluth City Council is considering a proposal to reduce the funding of the Public Arts Commission. Councilor Russ Stewart, who proposed this, said, "It seems like if the council is serious about cutting funding, let's find things that are nonessential to running a city."

I find this counterproductive for a city that is trying to attract tourists and get young people to stay. We already have too many blah areas that could use some art, like many parts of the skyway system.

This just in. The Duluth Bakery Council, in the interest of cutting costs, has decided that's its members will no longer frost cakes. Considering the high cost of sugar and butter, bakers will be able to provide more cakes to more people at a lower cost.

This just in. The Duluth Bakery Council reports that sales at its member bakeries is down 30%. Cake sales are almost nonexistent and bread sales have dropped 10%.

This just in. The Duluth Bakery Council reports that three of its members have closed their doors. Lots of Dough, one of the largest of these three, said that it has been giving much of its daily production to local food shelves because so few people visit its shop. Lots of Dough owner, Chuck Boyd, said that people used to come in for a cake for a party and also buy several loaves of bread. Since Lots of Dough stopped putting frosting on its cakes, the shop has sold only one or two cakes a day and only a couple dozen loaves of bread a day.

This just in. The mayor of Hinckley, Minnesota reports a dramatic increase in housing construction. He was at a loss to explain it until he visited Tobie's, a popular half-way point for the drive between Duluth and the Twin Cities. He couldn't believe the lines at Tobie's bakery counter. People weren't asking for Tobie's signature cinnamon rolls but frosted cakes of all kinds. When the mayor asked John Fuss, a former resident of Duluth, why he would move from a city with such great lake views to a city surrounded by farms and casino parking lots, Mr. Fuss replied, "I'd rather eat my cake than have a lake view."

Monday, November 12, 2007

I spend too much time on my computer, or not enough?

I spend too much time on my computer, or not enough?

My son recently said I could stay away from my computer for a day or two, meaning doing without Internet access. Others have said that many people spend too much time on their computers.

But do they? Do we spend too much time in our houses or at our desks? Do we spend too much time with pencil and paper doing our accounting and bill paying? Do we spend too much time in an easy chair reading a book or magazine or newspaper? Do we write too many letters on paper to friends, politicians, or newspapers? Do we spend too much time getting our pictures developed and organized into scrapbooks? Do we spend too much time learning a piece of music for voice or instrument?

The fact is that a personal computer is an enabler of all these activities.

I once spent half an evening developing and printing a roll of film. Now I can have a hundred pictures ready for viewing in 15-30 minutes. I can print a copy of one in less than five minutes. Or I can distribute copies to the world in minutes.

Sure, I can dash off a note on paper in five minutes, but my recipient might not see it for two or three days. I also must add another five minutes for addressing, sealing, and stamping the envelope. With email I can send a quick note in one minute or a couple of paragraphs in five. If I make a mistake, I can correct it in a few seconds, if I see it. But we don't always see are errors on paper either.

Anyone who has used a computer to balance a checkbook knows, that even if it can be frustrating, a spreadsheet can be much more accurate than 10 pieces of scratch paper.

Once upon a time, some people subscribed to three newspapers a day and two magazines a week. Now too many people sit glued to a screen following somebody else's priorities and waiting minutes for what they are really interested in. On the other hand, one can scan hundreds of newspapers and magazines on the Internet from around the world or even search for a particular item of interest.

There is much more that we can access or do with our computers than I can write about in these few words. The real problem is that we can do so much that it is difficult to focus on what we should be doing now. It is like a 1,000 item smörgåsbord. What do we eat first?

Honor the veterans but...

We should honor those who fought in our government's wars. Unfortunately, such honor rubs off on those who initiated the wars, often initiated by means of false or misleading statements. These same government officials further justify their actions as "defending our freedoms", even as they themselves stifle freedom in the name of national security.

With this in mind, how do we honor the warriors without honoring the war?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Education: structured and formal or free-form and creative?

Syl Jones wrote an interesting op-ed piece for the Star Tribune about education, "Education, the quality thereof".

His basic advice was to throw out the outline, encourage creativity, and meet a living example.

He said that he refused to do outlines and most of his teachers punished him. In the eighth grade a teacher told him, "Outlines are for people who didn't know what they wanted to write."

I too have disliked outlines. I gave up an A in American History at West High School in Cleveland because I wouldn’t follow the school’s pattern for producing the term paper required for an A. First, one had to prepare and submit a set of index cards. Then an outline. Once that was approved, one could write the actual paper.

It didn’t hurt me that much because I went on to get a Masters in Mathematics and late in life became a regular columnist for the Reader Weekly of Duluth. As a writer I give Word fits. See sentence fragment above. But it is with such breaking out of the mold that one has more effect.

Although I had many inspiring teachers in almost every school year, I wish I had more like Syl Jones described and Frank McCourt, Teacher Man. I think I might have arrived much earlier at the point in writing and singing then I am now at as I approach 70, not really that great, but definitely satisfying.

Click here for a list of some of my writings on learning and education.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Solar is great, but...

Business Week, Oct. 15, "Solar's Day in the Sun" gives an optimistic picture of solar collectors in the desert turning water to steam to drive generators. Supposedly there is enough sunlight in the deserts of the U.S. Southwest to provide electricity many times over.

Since a desert by definition has little water, where is the water for these plants going to come from?

If generation is concentrated in one section of the country, there will be a huge need for high-voltage power lines to get the power to other parts of the company. The line losses could be very great, possibly offsetting some of the promised cost savings.

Concentrating any resource increases risk of disruption, by criminal intent, by natural disasters, or by Murphy's Law ("if anything can go wrong, it will").

I think we should be looking for as much distributed, local power generation as we can with as many different systems as are feasible. I do not mean that each house or building should be completely energy, self-sufficient. We should start with very local energy with backup levels all the way up to a regional generation and distribution. It used to be that way, but over time centralized generation became cheaper. However, pollution and other problems have created costs that are not accounted for in centralized distribution.

Whose entitlement?

Business Week, Oct. 15, has a feedback section on a previous article on overtime.

Several of the respondents complain of a litiginous society with an entitlement mentality. One thing often overlooked in these kind of arguments is that more suits are filed company against company than individual against company. On entitlements, who are those feeling entitled: employees requesting just payment for their time or employers demanding more time than they are willing to pay for?

One business administration professor wrote about letting the "market work". She forgets that a truly free market consists of willing buyers and sellers with complete information on the transaction, the ability to quickly enter and leave the market, and no consequences affecting other than the buyer and seller. Employment is not easily entered or left, especially quickly.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The real winner in the elections was a loser

Duluth, Minnesota had local elections on Nov. 6, 2007 like many communities across the nation. The winners are congratulating themselves and the losers are licking their wounds.

However, the winners shouldn't be so smug. They all really came in second. Minnesota is a high voter turnout state and Duluth is generally one of the highest in the states. Sadly, in this election, Duluth turnout was 50.19% That means "I don't care" got more votes than any candidate, including the winners.

Given the generally positive campaigns this year in Duluth, especially in the mayor's race, I hope the new officials can get more people engaged in the next elections, above the historically higher figures for national and state elections.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Good news among the bad from Pakistan

Pakistan seems to be going out of control as a democracy back to a military dictatorship. Besides the demonstrations by lawyers and others, the good news is that Dawn is still being published online and is still acting independently.

"THE suspension of the Constitution has stripped away the democratic façade from General Musharraf’s military rule." - Fight against militancy by Kaiser Bengali

"GENERAL Musharraf would know as well as anybody else that access to information is every citizen’s right. So there is no question about him, or his government, ‘giving’ the country a free media as he believes. It is not for him to take this freedom away either. The government’s arbitrary blocking of all television news channels — including the foreign ones — and putting curbs on the press can thus not be justified." - Unjust denial of information, unsigned editorial

Monday, November 05, 2007

U.S. Out How?

The latest issue of Mother Jones has a feature on the Iraq War, "U.S. Out How: the Moral Dilemma of Leaving Iraq". It offers quite a wide range of opinions on staying in Iraq or leaving Iraq, and if the U.S. should leave, when and how.

The key point is that it may have been Bush's war, but through the actions of Congress and the people, we all now own it.

I think you'll come away with your head swirling with all the possibilities and pitfalls of almost all plans and ideas.


Don't read Harry Potter on the bus

I thought it was time to read fiction for awhile and borrowed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix from the library. I started reading it while waiting for the bus and kept reading it on the bus. Every so often I noticed a landmark or two on the way home. As I finished the first chapter I realized the bus was going up a long hill that I wasn't accustomed to seeing. Oh no! I missed my stop. Fortunately I had less than a ten minute walk home.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Iran will bring about World War III?

President George W. Bush thinks that Iran possessing nuclear weapons will bring about World War III. He may be right but have the circumstances all wrong.

If the U.S. attacks Iran, the world could turn against the U.S. The rest of the world would not attack the U.S., but the world population probably would prevent any democratic (and even some autocratic) governments from joining any "coalition of the willing." Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Many of the people of the world would probably make Americans and American companies very unwelcome. Remember, in WWI many American schools forbade the teaching of German and the U.S. Government confiscated the assets of the Bayer Company.

The antipathy towards things American and the stretching of resources to fight three wars at once would continue the relative decline of the American economy. Sure, the American economy is still growing, but others, like India and China, are growing even faster. Without an economy commensurate with the need to for a strong military, going to war will only accelerate the relative decline of the economy. History has many examples. See The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Who should be president? Difficult choices for us

Actually, the choices aren't so much ours as they are the choices of editors and popular bloggers. See Making news or reporting news? They are the ones who choose the so-called front-runners and give more coverage to them.

So, being a not-so-popular blogger, I'll give my own list of front-runners. However, later I will give you an alternative for choosing a presidential candidate, by-passing all of us media know-it-alls.

My order does not reflect my current preferences. It's just as they pop into my mind.

Hillary Clinton has some good ideas and some bad ideas. From what I've read, she is the one coming up with concrete proposals for many domestic issues, like health care. On the other hand, she has cast votes in the Senate that have led us into the current mess in Iraq. I have not seen any concrete proposals for a smooth extrication from Iraq.

Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico, has experience in governance. That is, making government work to the benefit of most of the people. I favor this qualification for President over any other, including "foreign policy experience". The Current Occupant certainly didn't have any of that and still doesn't after seven years on the job. I would have to examine Richardson's record more to see how well he governed. It would be nice if the major newspapers gave him as much coverage as Clinton and Obama.

All the Republicans are more of the same Goofy Old Party that has gotten us into many of our current problems. The only Republican I might consider voting for is Ron Paul, but I have only two reasons. As a libertarian, he has an independent streak that is refreshing in the current "The President's way or the highway" mindset. He did vote against the Iraq War, my second reason for favoring him. However, libertarians minimize common good, something in short supply among Republicans.

What alternatives to we have, outside of getting involved in a party or an individual campaign? There is a group called Unity08 that will hold an online nominating convention in June 2008. Once the convention selects a candidate pair, Unity08 will endeavor to put them on the ballot in every state. Visit Unity08 for more details on participating in the convention.

My own quirky choices: Kathleen Sebelius, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, or Olympia Snowe. The thinking of any of these is better than many who are currently more prominent in presidential politics. Any pairing from this selection of politician-politician or politician-journalist would give us a more serious discussion of the issues than is currently available.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The world agrees on one thing!

The world agrees that there are 24 hours in a day. If there is a modern culture that divides the day into more or less periods, I'm not aware of it.

While researching this entry I found out why there are duodecimal systems - based on 12. In addition to the 12 lunar cycles in a year, we have 12 digits on the long fingers of each hand. We can use our thumb to count on them. See Why is a minute divided into 60 seconds, an hour into 60 minutes, yet there are only 24 hours in a day?.

Many cultures do most official timekeeping on 24 hours. That is shop hours may be 0900 to 2000 (9 in the morning to 8 in the evening) and train and plane schedules are on this 24-hour period. As expected, the U.S. is one of the few holdouts, dividing the day into two 12-hour periods; the 1710 flight leaves a U.S. airport at 5:10 p.m.

What do you expect from a society that resists the metric system and forming true coalitions to tackle world problems?

We need some leaders that can agree on a few more things, like the futility of nuclear weapons.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Please", a cross-cultural lesson in politeness

Many languages have a single word or phrase to add for politely asking someone to do a favor or even do something they should do without thinking. This phrase is also used in offering something to another, like, "please help yourself" or "please have this seat." In English, it is "please"; in German, "bitte"; in Swedish, "var så god"; in Italian, "prego", and in French, "s'il vous plait". In German, Swedish, and Italian, this phrase is also used for "you're welcome." In English, we may also say, "be so kind to..." or "if you please" or similar, but they are infrequent in daily discourse.

Japanese, to my untrained mind, has at least three common ways of saying "please". I first learned "kudasai" as being the equivalent of "please". However, if you are asking for a service, you might say, "onegai shimasu" (the "u" silent). Then I noticed that "dozo" was used for offering a service. For example, as a server put a plate in front of you, he or she would say, "dozo" (please have this).

Then I started recognizing ください (kudasai) on signs. It was more or less like "Please don't litter" or "please stay back from train doors". That is, it is an instructional "please."

I found myself using "dozo" when I made way for someone else. For example, we set the train seats on the three across side to face each other as we were five adults. For more leg room, I moved across the aisle to an empty two-across seat. At a station, a couple got on and couldn't find an unoccupied two-across or even three-across seat, and so they sat in a three-across with a stranger. I got up, gestured toward the seats, and said, "Dozo." They gratefully accepted the seats and said "Thank you".

Sometimes, "Dozo" is said only with a gesture. For example, a flagman at a construction site would wave us on with a sweep of his hand towards his back.

This is by no means a paean on the politeness of Japanese society. It is a mixture of rudeness, unfeeling, ordinary politeness, and out-of-the-way politeness. Traffic is the perfect example of rudeness, and some women carry flashing buttons to warn gropers on the subway that they have been noticed. Like in many countries, the elevator protocol is to avoid eye contact. I've written about ordinary politeness above. We've had strangers go out of their way to find us station lockers.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

You can do well with Celsius

Americans struggle with metric measurements because, rather than adapt them, they always want to make detailed conversions. It would just be easier to junk the non-metric system and think in metric terms. Why do we even bother with Fahrenheit when we can just use some simple guidelines for determining our relationship to the temperature?

Most people know that 0° C is freezing and 100° C is boiling. We don't need to convert these to 32° F and 212° F because freezing and boiling are our reference points.

Here are some other points.

20° C - a comfortable room temperature. Don't set you winter heating above this.

25° C - a comfortable summer day. Don't set your air-conditing below this.

30° C - a warm summer day, a nice temperature to work outside or to swing in the hammock.

35° C - a hot summer day. Find some shade.

40° C. A very hot summer day. A good sauna temperature for those who don't like a really hot sauna. Others may prefer higher points up to 105°.

Going the other way:

15° C - a cool summer day. You may want to wear a sweater or light jacket.

10° C - a chilly day, You will want to wear a sweater and a light jacket.

5° C - a cold day. You may want to wear gloves, too.

0° C - freezing. Of course you'll wear a medium or heavy jacket and gloves.

-5° C - A brisk winter day. If you work hard, you'll be glad you dressed in layers.

-10° C - Still bearable for being outside, but watch for discomfort.

-15° C - If you don't have to be outside, don't.

-20° C - Keep your car in a garage or have a plugged-in engine block heater.

-40° C - The same level of cold as in another system. Stay inside.

What God told me

I said to a friend recently, "If God wanted me to do something, why didn't he tell me?"

My friend replied, "Maybe you weren't listening."

I replied, "I was listening. God said, 'Nobody understands what I say.'"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Will the Republicans go the way of the Whigs?

n the 1850s the Whigs, a party founded partly on modernization of the nation and the overreach of the Democrat Andrew Jackson against Congress, began to fade. One of the reasons was they fractured over slavery with most northerners opposed. The Republican Party was founded in part by former Whigs who were dissatisfied with many of the party's policies, including the acquisition of Texas, "a land grab". In 1860, they elected their first president, Abraham Lincoln.

In the early 2000's more and more Republicans are becoming dissatisfied with the direction of their party, and the people's confidence in George Bush is dwindling. They are realizing that George Bush is pushing for more presidential power at the expense of Congress and that the Iraq War was an ill-conceived and poorly executed "land grab". As the Republican Party becomes more under the sway of ideologues, fewer thoughtful people will want to be involved.

The question is not so much will the Republican Party implode, but when and what will rise to replace it. We can only hope soon and that people who can better foresee consequences of their actions will create a viable new party.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The military needs to be green, too

Many have mentioned that a sound energy policy is also a national defense issue. Thomas Friedman, "Who Will Succeed Al Gore?", New York Times, Oct. 14, 2007, gives an interesting twist on this. He wrote that U.S. Army officers are desperate for distributed solar power so they don't have to depend on diesel generators. The diesel fuel has to be trucked in, and the trucks are regular targets for insurgents. Isn't one of the jobs of the Commander-in-Chief keeping the supply lines open to the military?

One of the strategic moves of the Allies in World War II was to bomb the oil fields in Ploesti, Romania, thus depriving the German Army of much needed fuel. Not using solar power in a sunny land like Iraq seems to be another case of not learning from history.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Giant steps, not baby steps

I've often wondered how much using paper bags instead of plastic bags, increasing gas mileage by x percent, and many other individual initiatives would improve the environment. I will take these baby steps myself in many cases, but we also need a new "defense" initiative to reduce the old style energy generation and create new means of generating energy. To do so would take a massive government effort that too few politicians are considering.

The October "Wired" has an article about two environmentalists who have proposed such a project. Two Environmentalists Anger Their Brethren by Mark Horowitz. They contend that the current environmentalism is not going to produce the needed results. Micheal Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus propose a New Apollo Project.

Blogging for the environment

Earlier in the day Tuesday last week, before I read about the Blog Action Day for the Environment, I posted Amazing energy savings to be made across the country. It was on the tremendous waste of energy by overly air-conditioned rooms in hotel.

If you regard this as a serious environmental problem, an economic efficiency, or just plain uncomfortable to you, on your next visit to a hotel, say something to management. Better yet, contact the chain.

You can also look at your own energy usage.

Do you heat above 68 degrees F. (20 C) or cool below 77 (25)?

Do you leave lights on all over your house even if you won't be back to a room for awhile? Why not leave on just enough light to find the light switch in the room next to the one you are in?

Do you drive when you could take the bus, bicycle or walk? Does your city discourage alternative transportation? Write your council members or mayor about your "favorite" disincentive to save energy.

See also

A Clean, Quiet Revolution

Ethanol vs. Gasoline, A Changing Marketplace

What Bush should have said about oil

Coal or solar?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Little decisions can lead to big changes

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
- Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

There are several science fiction stories about space navigators who can see all the possibilities of a ship's travel and can choose the fastest and safest one. One mistake can lead to disaster.

We lesser mortals can't even predict what effect our choice of lunch may have on our future.

I or my wife had made many little decisions that have had a profound effect on our life, an effect that we could not conceive of at the time.

When I was already in college, I made a decision overnight to run for the presidency of a subdistrict of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I had once declined to do so, but something led me to change my mind. I had a friend nominate me at the meeting the next day, and I won against the listed candidate. Probably because I was male. This was the late 50s.

Once in office, I started dating the elected secretary of the subdistrict. She had voted against me, but after almost 50 years, two children, and three grandchildren, she doesn't regret either decision.

After a couple of years at Univac, I had made an attempt to get a transfer to Norway, but my supervisor didn't follow through on whatever needed to be done. Sometime later, my wife said, "If you still want to go to Europe, don't let us stop you," meaning herself and our kids. So, I made another attempt and we wound up living in Europe for six years.

While we were in Stockholm, my wife struck up a conversation on a subway with another American. We visited each other's houses and were given a standing invitation to visit them in their cabin in Brimson, Minnesota.

When we finally moved back to Minnesota, we spent most of our vacation time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, but that became less frequent because we never seemed to co-ordinate our vacation time. One year we decided to take up the Brimson invitation over a long weekend. The story is longer yet with other little decisions, but we wound up buying property in Brimson.

Once we had built a cabin on our property, we found that the four-hour drive was becoming tiresome. My wife's employer had an office in Duluth and had been encouraging its employees to work from home whenever possible. So, she asked for a transfer to Duluth.

As usual, there are more little decisions, but one I made was to do more writing. And so here I am, a regular columnist in a local alternative paper and a sometime blogger.

It has happened here!

"Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Torture Appeal", New York Times, Oct. 10, 2007

The case of Khaled el-Masri who claims to have been illegally detained and tortured by the United States government has been dismissed by the Supreme Court. The grounds, it would reveal state secrets. Who decided el-Masri was a terrorist suspect? The Federal government. Who decided state secrets would be revealed? The Federal government.

Whatever happened to checks and balances? This sound eerily like It can't happen here by Sinclair Lewis.

In other words, who decides who a terrorist is? George Bush. Who decides the evidence can't be revealed? George Bush. This is the guy who says he is bring freedom and democracy to the rest of the world.

See also Review of It can't happen here and What do I have to hide? Plenty!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Where has "tough on ..." gotten us?

I sent this sent this email to my Representative, Jim Oberstar.

Apropos "Democrats seem ready to extend wiretap powers", New York Times, Oct. 9, 2007

I would hope that Democrats after all these years would counterattack the Republicans charges of "soft on..." with "we want to be effective on..."

Such is the case with Bush and Company's eroding of the Constitution with their security paranoia. They may have been "tough on terrorism" but they've been singularly "ineffective on terrorism".

From my latest Reader Weekly article, Putting up with putdowns, Sept. 27, 2007
Miracle! Before I sent this column I found the “lost chord”. It is “soft on…” It is an argument that Democrats have let Republicans get by with for too long. The Republicans discussion stoppers have been “soft on crime”, “soft on Communism”, and “soft on terrorism”. This hard-nosed approach has yet to make any of these disappear. Soviet Communism self-destructed but it lives on in Putin’s petro-authoritarianism. And we still have China and Castro.

Amazing energy savings to be made across the country

Almost anytime I visit a hotel in the the warmer months, I almost get knocked off my feet as I enter the room. It is "freezing". Generally the dial on the air-conditioner is twisted way over to the cold side. At a recent stay the room had a digital setting. It was set at 65° F. (18° C.)!

Many people would not tolerate a temperature that low in the winter. Many energy experts recommend a heating temperature of 68° F (20° C.). On the other hand, they recommend a cooling temperature of 77° F (25° C.). That is the temperature of a nice balmy day in the summer.

I tried looking for something about the actual savings with Google, but most of what I found was either about guests complaining about rooms being too cold or about replacing old equipment with newer, more efficient equipment.

I did see one item about a hotel saving $21,000 per year by improved A/C.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Creative fallacies

I'm reading George Soros' The Age of Fallibility, and I recently read columns by Diane Ravitch on No Child Left Behind (1) and David Brooks on the co-opting of classical conservatism by the Republican Party (2). Or should I say, the co-opting of the Republican Party by people who are certain they hold the truth.

No Child Left Behind and the "war on terrorism" have created more problems than they have solved and diverted resources away from possibly better solutions. We have looked for the quick fixes, the Father knows best solutions, rather than engage in a sober discussion of what the real problems are. We deal with solving problems with the certainty we know the solutions rather than deal with the uncertainty that we won't have a perfect solution.

For example, peace demonstrations are not the answer to extricating our country from the Iraq war. Demonstrations are more mob rule than governance. A better strategy would be to write columns, blogs, letters to the editor, letters to representatives showing the fallacies of the current course. This strategy would have to also suggest ideas to deal with the problems. For example, what do you do for all the Iraqis that have helped the U.S. forces?

The "war on terror" like the "war on drugs" before it is a misleading choice of words. The "war on terror" has reinforced the view that a military solution will adequately deal with criminals who are certain that their view of the world will prevail. We can't bomb Hamburg because terrorists are living and plotting there.

We need to counter terrorism more with ideas than bullets. The U.S. has blown many chances to show that the bin Laden version of Muslim is contrary to many teachings of the Qu'ran. We need to show that an ideology will not bring about a heaven on earth, but that an open society will give us more opportunities to get closer to a just world. We need to counter certainty with possibilities.

(1) "Get Congress Out of the Classroom", Diane Ravitch, New York Times, Oct. 3, 2007

(2) "The Republican Collapse", David Brooks, New York Times, Oct. 5, 2007

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

It's a sad day in the funnies

The comic section of newspapers has come a long way from depicting the foibles of adults, kids, and animals and the feats of heros and super-heros. Nowadays we see more political satire such as "Doonesbury" and "Mallard Fillmore" and more real-life stories such as "For better or for worse" and "Funky Winkerbean". Now we get involved in the trials and tribulations of characters who seem to be part of our daily lives.

People have died before in the funnies, for example, Ellie Patterson's mother died some years ago. But today we get two signals that death has happened. Ellie's father's second wife finds him immobile and Lisa Moore's dream has a masked tuxedoed man coming to escort her elsewhere. It was hard to get up from the breakfast table without a lump in the throat or a tear in the eye.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Chaos, noise, and chance can reward the prepared

One of my coffee companions is always trying to put certain group behaviors into some large philosophical context. Some of us think that people are more independent than stereotypes. That is, our lives are governed as much by chance as by some cultural norms. It is chance that often leads to extraordinary happenings.

Today was another ordinary day that was extraordinary. It was ordinary in that I walked to a coffee shop, went to the library, and got a haircut. Well, not quite, I wouldn't ordinarily do the last two this week.

I went to the library to check for a missing book. I had returned a downtown book to the branch library, but the records showed I didn't return it. I was sure I had and couldn't find it in the house or either of our vehicles. Yesterday I double checked the downtown library. Today I checked the branch library, and, lucky me and lucky library, it was shelved in proper Dewey order in the wrong library. This is part of the chaos, a librarian was probably rushed and shelved the downtown book locally.

While looking for the missing book, I saw "The Language Police" by Diane Ravitch. It's about censorship and bowdlerization in the schools. The jacket says it's "a case of the bland leading the bland." I'll have to get this book when I finish those I am currently reading.

I normally wouldn't be getting a haircut this week and I would normally have gotten it earlier, but the barber isn't at my beck and call. Being later allowed me time to go to the library. Because I went to the barber after leaving the coffee shop and library, I returned home on the other side of the street.

I've been thinking of a photo essay on "The ugly side of Duluth", all the streets and sidewalk needing maintenance or repair, the overgrown trees and shrubs blocking the sidewalk, and so on. As I walked by a small green area of UMD, I noticed two pop cans on an otherwise neatly kept area. It was an interesting juxtaposition with all the mushrooms growing because of the recent rains.

Just as I put my camera back in my case, I heard a car honk. I looked up and saw a car braking for a deer running across the road. It was gone in the brush on the other side of the street before I could get my camera out.

As I continued I saw a deer peeping over a hedge in a yard. I got out my camera and managed one picture before it bounded around the house. Then I saw another deer on the other side of the yard. I kept taking pictures as fast as I could and got one very clear one with the deer trotting towards the back yard. As I was trying for a few more, I noticed that the camera would no longer zoom. I had pushed the off button instead of the shutter. More chaos.

Thatcher's law has been proved again: "The unexpected happens; you had better prepare for it."

See also my two identically titled articles, One thing leads to another (Aug. 4, 2005) and One thing leads to another (Nov. 10, 2005)

Monday, October 01, 2007

One definition of wit

As I was sorting through the scraps of paper on my desk, I discovered that I left one thought out of Putting up with putdowns. It was related to our seeming ability to rapidly counter or neutralize conversation-stoppint putdowns.

Miss Palmer, my high school English teacher defined wit as that which we have on the way home that somebody else had at the party.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

MyNation wins Tiddly-Winks championship

When I saw the New York Times headline, "Germany Wins Women's World Cup Again", I thought all Germans won the World Cup? No, some German's won the Women's Soccer World Cup. Undoubtedly many supported this team, if not in money or attendance, at least in spirit. That can give a team drive, but how much real contribution did all Germans make to the team's success.

Somehow, it seems ludicrous to me that one should automatically have great loyalty to a sports team because they "represent" a geographical area, be it one high school of many in a town or be it one team selected from many from a country. When I watch a sports events, which is generally because my host has not given me much choice, I cheer for all contenders. I feel great when someone makes a great play and I feel down when someone makes a mistake, whatever side they are on.

It may be a good substitute for war or other strife, like the Iraqi team winning the Asia cup. Unfortunately, few of the Iraqi team actually lived in Iraq; it's too dangerous for men in shorts. But it did momentarily give many Iraqis a feeling of unity beyond the daily violence.

Ideally, we would work more on co-operative efforts rather than competitive efforts. We do see that in business where companies form alliances across borders to produce a product or service. Too bad these don't generate the excitement and attention that "high-level" sports events do.

Iraq war and riding in a car

The post Iraq war? on Minnesota's in the middle had a comment about not knowing why we are in Iraq and implied the President knows more than we do.

Yeah, we ask someone to drive us somewhere and that person takes a "shortcut". The car gets stuck in the mud and we all have to get out and push, except the driver. The driver keeps encouraging us saying, "I can see solid ground ahead."

Will we ever have representative government?

I was updating my The Moderate Manifesto I checked the links. When I looked at Unity08 I read a few of its pages.

In short, Unity08 thinks that the nominating process is not serving the country. As another choice "we will prepare to hold, in June 2008, the first-ever online convention where millions of Americans will nominate a Unity ticket for President and Vice President of the United States. We will work to achieve ballot access for that ticket in all 50 states. We will elect them to the White House in November 2008." - About Unity08

This sounds great, but I don't think those participating will be representative of the electorate.
According to the survey Unity08 took of its membership, it is 90% with some college or more, 50% over 50, 73% male, 53% business or professional class (slide 26), 90% have high-speed internet access (slide 27), and generally half don't watch politic pundits on TV (slide 28).

Well, I guess that's not so bad. Except for the TV viewing, it looks much like the demographics of the current major parties.

The upside is that people will be participating in the selection in a small time frame, and that the selection of candidates will be as large as the participants wish. The winnowing will not be determined by a small number of people in a few parts of the country.

It will be interesting to see how big a role money will play in this campaign. It might be more a matter of time to post sufficient comments. And there may be ways to game the system, like recruit people by whatever means to vote for a given candidate.

Do decide for yourself if this is a reasonable alternative to the system few really like.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Constitution Day

Did you know today is Constitution Day? I didn't and from what I gather most people don't either. Supposedly this situation will change because federal law now requires schools to provide educational programming on the history of the Constitution on the school day closest to September 17.

I think it's a pity that we don't elevate the honoring of the Constitution to the level of many of the other holidays that venerate "patriotism". The Constitution is more important to our freedom than any war or the flag. It gives the legal underpinning for our government and our rights. Time and time again, the greatest threats to these have been apathy, mob rule, and our own government.

Are demonstrations effective?

The beauty of demonstrating is that you do not have to compromise.

You gather the like-minded, stand around or march with signs, and some people agree with you, most ignore you, and a few attack you, verbally or physically. You feel good about making a statement and go home. But have you really changed anything?

The real way to get change is to get involved politically. To be effective politically you have to appeal to a wide range of people and interests. To appeal to a wide range of people, you have to compromise.

You can get political change by running for office, by supporting those who share many of your views, or by writing reasoned letters to the editor or to office-holders. Or you could start a new political party that addresses issues you think are not being addressed. But to be successful in getting your party's candidates elected, it has to appeal to a wide range of people and interests. See above about compromise.

So it is much easier to demonstrate and feel good.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

War in Iraq may lead to relative U.S. decline

I just read Thomas Friedman's "Iraq Through China's Lens" in today's New York Times. He points out that in a major speech Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, talked about economic progress made and economic, political, and environment challenges to be faced. On the other hand, Friedman wrote, the U.S. is focused on the war in Iraq.

It's time for many to reread Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000.

Kennedy's thesis is that the great powers rise and fall relative to each other, even if a power's economy and military is growing, others may be growing faster. Considering how fast China and India are growing relative to the U.S., the U.S. is squandering much of its resources in Iraq and will "fall" further behind China and India.

See also my articles Is the Asian Century coming? and More on a Possible Asian Century.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Why I avoid message boards

I had difficulty getting a new picture into one of my standard picture of the day pages. No matter how carefully I copied the HTML code from flickr, I got the alternate message indicating the picture couldn't be found.

I plugged in the HTML for an old picture, and the page worked fine. I plugged in the HTML for the new picture, and the picture couldn't be found. I used the URLs to look at the pictures in another browser; they were displayed fine.

I went to flickr's message board and picked a couple of topics that seemed relevant. I waded through message after message reporting having difficulties with flickr. And message after message complaining about others' posts. And message after message complaining about complaining about others.

Finally, on a second topic I found a message from flickr staff that my browser's cache may have lost the picture but didn't know it. I diddled around with the browser a bit, including closing it at least once. I was very frustrated and so I just floundered around without noting what I did. However, the important point is that the picture now appears in my web page ( today and tomorrow or soon

Most of the time I'm not so lucky to find a relevant answer.

Monday, September 03, 2007

An education "then" never was

I'm reading John Allen Paulos' Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. In Chapter 4, "Whence Innumeracy", he gives an anecdote about his own public school mathematical education.

When he was 10, he calculated a pitcher's ERA as 135. He told his teacher about it, was asked to explain it to the class, did so shyly with quavering voice, and was told by the teacher he was wrong and should sit down. The teacher said an ERA could never be greater than 27.

At the end of the season, the local newspaper published all the major league ERAs. Since this particular pitcher never played again, his ERA was 135. Paulos showed the article to the teacher who gave him a dirty look and told him to sit down.

"His idea of good education apparently was to make sure everyone remained seated."

Paulos received his B.S. in Mathematics in 1967, and so this incident occurred about 1955. I wonder if 1955 is in Mallard Fillmore's "now" for "bad education".

Just as bad as Paulos' incident, when I was in fourth grade and nine (1947), a substitute teacher took a vote on the distance to the Moon. I wonder how long ago Mallard Fillmore's "then" was. I don't think Bruce Tinsley even knows when "then" was; he was born in 1958.

See more in Chapter 4 of Innumeracy about shortcomings of math education. The book was published in 1988 when Tinsley was 30.

See also my recent article "If numbers make you number, you'll lose dollars before you holler".

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Why don't men sing?

A couple of years ago I wrote a column "Why Don't Men Sing" for the Reader Weekly. I gave various cultural reasons for men's lack of interest in singing. One I mentioned was our becoming more passive with respect to entertainment because of radio and TV. John Allen Paulos gave a broader look at this problem in Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences.

He wrote that the averages in a small collection and a large collection are about the same but that the extremes will be wider in larger collections. For example, in a small town there may be some good singers, but in a large city there may be some even better singers. When the small town singers performed in their home town, people appreciated them. However, as people in the small town heard the better singers available in the big city on radio and TV, they were no longer satisfied with their neighbors' singing. This is even more discouraging to beginning singers because they are judged by a cruelly higher standard.

We can see the reverse in the performances of small children. Some indulgent adults go overboard in praising any effort by small children, even if half of them can't even be heard. That is, the wonder is not how well they sing, but that they sing at all. It's a pity that encouragement of effort won't last for more of their lives.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Economic development for the sake of economic development

Duluth, Minnesota has a new parking ramp that has been controversial. From a small motel that was losing parking space for some of its RV customers to the mayor getting angry at a medical center for not following through on its supposed agreement with the city to rent some of the space.

As I walk by the First Street Ramp (the one between 3rd and 4th Aves. E.), I wonder if those that conceived it did their homework beforehand. At one o'clock on a weekday, almost none of the metered parking on the street was in use. From what I can see, there are few cars in the ramp. A friend who has used the ramp said that there were few cars in it.

When I don't take a bus or walk to the fitness center in the medical center (SMDC - St. Mary's Duluth Clinic) I park in the Second Street Ramp which is part of SMDC's Second Street Building. Only once have I found the ramp full and I generally find a spot in the first two levels. The cost is $1.25, $1.75, and $2.00 for one, two, and three hours. The city's First Street Ramp is a flat $1.00 per hour, and it is farther away.

One SMDC employee who wrote a letter to the editor of the Duluth News Tribune complained she couldn't afford the rates the city wanted for the First Street Ramp. SMDC does run a shuttle to another city-owned ramp and lot (at the DECC - Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center). SMDC provides the shuttle and the parking free to its employees. The shuttle runs every fifteen minutes at shift changes and otherwise every thirty minutes.

A new Sheraton Hotel and condos does contract for some of the space, but a hotel that occupies a quarter block shouldn't need a ramp that occupies a half block.

My guess is that more frequent bus service throughout the city could have been provided for the cost of this ramp and would have provided just as many "jobs" for a much longer time.

Maybe the Building Trades Council has more clout than the Teamsters, the union of the bus drivers. Maybe certain politicians think changed real estate will provide more tax revenue than basic services. I bet an investigative reporter could come up with all the whys and wherefores and a better cost/benefit analysis than seemingly was done for this project.

For more of my thoughts on Duluth, see "Downtown Duluth: Pizza but no pizzazz!" The sidebar of this article lists more articles on Duluth.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The real lessons from Iraq and Vietnam

President George W. Bush recently spoke of lessons to learned from Vietnam; mainly that if the U.S. leaves, chaos will follow. The true lesson is that if the U.S invades without careful thought is that chaos follows. Put more broadly, the lessons which few military thinkers have learned are:

1) Pick your wars carefully
2) Know thine enemy
3) Have sufficient resources to win
4) Change strategy and tactics as needed
5) Know when you have failed and get out

Wishful thinking passing as political thought

So-called conservatives see the world as they wish it had been and so-called liberals see the world as they wish it would be. Any compromise to work with how it really is is anathema to the hard-core base of either camp.

See "Just what are conservatives conserving?" and "The left just doesn't get it".

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The truth ducks when Mallard Fillmore quacks

Bruce Tinsley's "Mallard Fillmore" can make a zinger of an observation on public figures or current fashionable ideas, but more often than not he follows a "conservative" "party line" without regard to the facts.

His August 17, 2007 cartoon on basic subjects and sex education was a "more often than not". He has a teacher "then" telling how she teaches basics and leaves sex education to the parents. He has a teacher "now" telling how she teaches sex and leaves the other stuff to the "street".

His footnote says, "Guess which era had fewer S.T.D.s and unwanted pregnancies and better educated kids?"

First, "then" didn't have AIDS, but it did have syphilis and gonorrhea. I have two great uncles who contracted syphilis, "then" being WWI era. These two diseases were mentioned in mandatory health classes where I went to school.

Unwanted pregnancies are as old as the human race, many the result of rape by otherwise "civilized" men. Given my parents were married in September and I was born in March, I'd say the pregnancy may not have been unwanted but is was probably unexpected. This was 1937-8. One of the girls in my Methodist Youth Fellowship became pregnant in the late 50's.
"Between 1945 and the early 1970s, an estimated 1.5 million unwed American girls and young women, most between ages 16 and 23, surrendered their babies for non-family adoptions." - "Unwed mothers forced to give up babies share their stories", Star Tribune, August 19, 2007
Really great teaching by the parents of "then"!

As to "better-educated kids", when I went to high school and took trigonometry there were some colleges that were offering that subject. Now, many high schools offer calculus and statistics, courses I didn't receive until college. Oh yes, many students from my city high school went on to college and many dropped out.

The Duluth News Tribune has put "Doonesbury" on the editorial page because it is "political". Maybe the Star Tribune should do the same for "Mallard Fillmore". Not!

See also the Wikipedia entry on "Mallard Fillmore".

Water in view but little on the ground

We have been having a drought in northeastern Minnesota and our house is in view of Lake Superior (see "Dandelion in drought").

We did have a fraction of an inch yesterday, and I remarked to my wife that the grass was starting to look green. She replied, "No, it's just a richer brown from the moisture."

Friday, August 17, 2007

If "they" are supposed to learn English...

shouldn't "we" learn the languages of countries we visit, work in, or invade?

I think requiring immigrants to learn English is an idea that ignores history and ignores too many Americans' cultural ignorance.

The U.S. has had many communities throughout its history where languages other than English were spoken. First, there were many Indian communities with a rich linguistic tradition. Second, there were many Spanish communities which were absorbed into the United States by various means. Finally, there were many communities founded by immigrants where they spoke their native language for a generation or more. This was especially true of German immigrants back to the Revolution and Swedish immigrants in the nineteenth century.

Americans have been tourists to many areas of the world without even knowing how to say, "Thank you." After all, "they" all speak English. Many a business deal has been lost because many of the ex-pats haven't or even refuse to learn the local language. Unless an invader has "overwhelming force", an invasion and subsequent occupation will be very difficult without a large number of the invaders knowing the local language and the local culture.

If we want immigrants to "learn English", we should do far better than treating foreign languages in school as a "frill".

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Mix solar and hydrogen power?

This morning's Duluth News Tribune had an article about Algeria beginning a massive solar project in the Sahara. One of the goals is to provide a goodly amount of Europe's electricity via undersea cables.

I wondered if it would be better to manufacture hydrogen fuel and ship that. Then the fuel can be used in cars or fuel cells to provide local electricity. The fuel would not be shipped as liquid but in a hydride form. With a quick search of the web I found two companies that produce the hydrides. One has a hydride slurry that safely store and release the hydrogen; I didn't delve into its current status. The other has a sodium-boron-hydride; it was being tested in a Chrysler Town and Country. The storage was equivalent to that for gasoline, the mileage was 30mpg gasoline equivalent, and the range was 300 miles.

Off the top of my head, I'd say transporting energy by cable would be more cost-effective. However, considering the bulk of some hydrides is about the same as gasoline, it would cost only twice as much to ship the hydride. The gasoline doesn't come back, but the depleted hydride does to be re-used.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Open software: follow-up

Every so often I solve a nagging problem by a slightly different approach. I wrote in "Open Software - You get what you pay for" of my difficulties of finding a replacement for Netscape Composer 7. The file I downloaded was corrupted, and I found it difficult to wade through all the help options.

A few days later, I thought to do a search on the name of the downloaded file. Within the first ten hits was a question just like mine. The questioner received several answers, mostly variations telling her that the product in question was no longer supported and had been replaced by Sea Monkey, all-in-one internet application suite. It is available for Windows, Linux GTK2, Mac OS X, and other systems.

The annoying problem that I had a few days ago no longer exists and I can update my web site pages much faster.

Where are the resignations?

And I don't mean resignations assuming responsibility for the collapse of a bridge. Where are the high-level resignations when "something went wrong during my watch"? Once upon a time, British or Japanese ministers would resign if things fell apart during their term, regardless of how culpable they may have been.

How many high-level resignations can you remember? Nixon, of course, but he went out with a long drawn-out fight? Most resignations, other than fatigue, occur because someone disagrees with his or her boss' policies. Others are forced out when popular opinion turns against them and the President asks for the resignation; the resignee rarely offers to resign until asked. For example, John Bolton as Ambassador to the U.N. or Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.

We won't see Minnesota Lt. Gov./Commissioner of Transportation Carol Molnau or U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitting that they let things get out of hand or that they didn't monitor things as thoroughly as they should have. It isn't just Republicans who won't admit responsibility for bad policies. Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Defense, didn't see the "light at the end of the tunnel" until decades after the Viet Nam war ended.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Bridge collapse speculation

The Star Tribune posted an aerial photo taken of the I-35W bridge about three hours before the collapse. One of the tags mentions that the repairs were "using heavy equipment and stockpiled supplies". Could the stockpiled supplies have had greater density than any vehicle that might have gone over the bridge?

Clash of civilizations?

Many of described the current struggle against terrorism as "a clash of civilizations". Al Qaeda and its ilk are not a civilization. They are nihilists with a romantic yearning for a non-existent past. It is more a struggle of good and evil: those who would build and those who would destroy. Unfortunately, some of the "good" think only in destructive terms.

Although Rupert Smith, a retired British general, doesn't discuss the Iraq war in The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, he makes many points that are instructive for this conflict. Essentially, "Smith argues that the military aims of the West are fundamentally at odds with the structure of Western military organizations, a contradiction which leads military operations into difficulty and potential failure." See "On War and Politics", Robert Farley, American Prospect, July 13, 2007.

Or as Abraham Lincoln said, "As our cause is new, so must we think anew."

Buried notes

I am making one of my rare desk clean-ups. Buried in various piles are scraps of paper with random thoughts. One I just uncovered includes these.

Blog, but writes more in head than on paper or computer.

A bird doesn't learn to fly unless it gets kicked out of the nest. Some birds die; the rest fly.

If your only tool is the military, every problem looks like a war.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Terrorists are criminals, not combatants

"Why Terrorists Aren't Soldiers", New York Times, Aug. 8, 2007, by Wesley K. Clark, former supreme commander of NATO and Kal Raustiala, law professor, is an important definition of who we're against. When Bush treats Al Qaeda members and suspected Al Qaeda members as "unlawful enemy combatants" he increases their stature. He also sees the military as the counter to such "combatants". On the other hand, if we treat them as criminals and use police forces to counter terrorist activities, we stand a much better chance of reducing their threat.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Bring freedom and democracy to who?

President George W. Bush has expressed many times his desire to bring "freedom and democracy" to other lands. His wishful thinking follows many other leaders before him.
Like other Great Powers before them, both Russia and the United States had to grapple with the hard fact that their "universalist" message would not be automatically accepted by other societies and cultures.

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, pp. 394-395 in the chapter "Stability and Change in a Bipolar World, 1943-1980
For several other examples of expectations of "great" leaders not being met, see
When will they ever learn...

Friday, August 03, 2007

How many lives is a tax cut worth?

Within hours of learning of the collapse of the I-35 bridge, I wondered if a backlash against the anti-tax crowd would develop. If one op-ed piece in today's Star Tribune and several letters are any indication, the backlash has started.

To have an infrastructure we need taxes. If you cut taxes, you reduce your care of your infrastructure. If you reduce care of your infrastructure, people and businesses can't thrive. In fact, some of them may die.

Grover Norquist wants to reduce government to the size he could drown in the bathtub. Well, because of his ilk, some people have drowned in a river.

e-Democracy, User provided support, and other assumptions

The Duluth News Tribune has been running "Mayoral Madness" on its editorial page. It has devised a play-off among the twelve candidates and has online voting for each pair. When today's pair had 56% (Charlie Bell) and 44% (Don Ness), I wondered if Bell got 7 votes and Ness 5. The DNT did not give vote totals.

I found out from a Don Ness campaign update that the vote had been running the other way until late when a huge number of votes were cast for Bell. Did lots of Bell supporters get a cheerleading message and rush to their computers, or did somebody deliberately cast a lot of votes?

The problem with this kind of voting is how easily it can be manipulated. The winner of the vote may get more publicity out of all proportion to the actual interest among real voters. This kind of voting Makes news instead of reporting news.

Another problem is that the electronic voters are even more self-selected than election-day voters. The electronic voters have to have an interest in participating, the tools to participate, and the time to participate. True, election-day voters need these also, but there is more cultural pressure to participate. Current electronic voting also has a heavier burden of "does it really matter."

The whole array of internet opportunites to participate in discussions or solving your own problems annoys me.

There are thousands and thousands of discussion boards on almost any subject. If you participate, you should participate. When I was a sysop on GEnie, a defunct private precursor to the web, people called those who only read "lurkers". I didn't like the term because it implied that they were spies rather than those who may not have had much to say. Those who do participate in discussion boards have to spend a lot of time reading and writing their messages. Even one message board could take an hour a day to read new messages and reply to a few. If the message board is very popular, you could get an overwhelming number of responses to your message. If it is not popular, you may never get an answer to your question.

Even if a message board is popular you may never get an answer to your question. This can be especially true of product support message boards. It could be you didn't phrase your question correctly, few are interested in your problem, or if interested, no other user has a good answer to your problem. Meanwhile, every few days you work your way through the log-in process, work your way through new messages, and go away disappointed. I much prefer direct email support, even if I sometimes get completely unsatisfactory answers.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Open Software -You get what you pay for

I've been busy updating my website with some new ideas (to me) and am getting tired of some of the pecularities of Netscape Composer 7.2. I looked for a later version but Netscape 9 is only a browser.

I found that Mozilla Suite replaces it and tried downloading it. When I try to open the downloaded package, my system tells me it has damaged files. I checked the Mozilla website but any support seems too complicated for the time I want to spend.

I guess I'll put up with Composer 7.2 for awhile longer.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Words from numbers

As I looked at a square in a SuDoKu puzzle, I said, "9 can't go here and 8 can't go here, so 6 must go here", I realized that SuDoKu is a game of can'ts.

For more fun with words, see my Homonym Homilies.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Gender-neutral language?

Many want to use language that is wholly gender-neutral but I think many attempts will be clumsy, even one many of us choose without thinking.

Chairor or chairperson instead of chairman or chair comes to mind. Of course, is a person something to sit in? Usage does make chair more acceptable than the first two choices; "the chair recognizes" is standard formal meeting usage.

Mailperson or fireperson thankfully have fallen by the wayside in favor of mail carrier or fire fighter.

The Unitarian-Universalists, who believe in the free and responsible search for truth have denied the truth of Walt Whitman's wishes. He did not want one word of his poems changed. But the UU hymnal "Singing the Living Tradition", in the name of gender-neutrality, has changed his "the men who govern you" to "those who govern you". My gosh, how can you take out a syllable from a poem?

One could use "one" as the pronoun for a person in general, but one finds that the use of "one" as a pronoun a bit outdated or clumsy.

"He or she", "him or her", "his or hers" have had some popularity for talking or writing about a person in general, but I find them clumsy also.

Popular usage has found the solution, but strict grammarians don't like it. "Someone left their wallet on the store counter" makes perfect sense to most people, but strict grammarians would complain about lack of agreement in number between the main subject and the pronoun referencing it. However, any language that follows the same rules for all time is a dead language. A living language, especially in a democracy, follows the rules made by today's speakers, not speakers of two hundred years ago.

Sure, many of us will rave and rant about usages we don't like. Like, they feel uncomfortable to our ear, you know. My teachers spoke against using "kid" for "child", but today's teachers easily use "kids" to refer to their students.

For a fun reference on language, read "The Power of Babel" by John McWorter. He gives many examples and explanations on how languages change.

Ron Paul for president?

Christopher Caldwell wrote a very interesting article about Rep. Ron Paul's (R-TX) candidacy for president (“The Antiwar, Anti-Abortion, Anti-Drug-Enforcement-Administration, Anti-Medicare Candidacy of Dr. Ron Paul”, New York Times, July 22, 2007). In it he asserts that "Ron Paul will not be the next president of the United States". I sent a letter to the New York Times that this is making news rather than reporting news.

Such writing tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. People decide not to "throw their vote away" for "somebody who can't win" and throw it away anyway by voting for somebody whom they don't agree with as much.

On many issues Ron Paul is an appealing candidate to me; on many other issues I would rather not see him as president. But his great strength is he votes and speaks what he believes in, not what he thinks voters want to hear. When one votes for such a candidate, you know what you're going to get.

I didn't like Barry Goldwater's bellicosity in 1964 and voted for Lyndon Johnson. Johnson won and we got Vietnam.

See also my article “Making news or reporting news”.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Livability of cities

I sent the following email to a Duluth city councillor who is proposing an amendment to the city's tall grass and rubbish ordinance. I doubt whether the amendment will do any good considering how little money Duluth or any other city has for enforcement.

I appreciate your concern about the livability of Duluth, but as a walker, I wonder if your amendment to the rubbish and tall grass ordinance will have much effect.

Laws and ordinances have three purposes:

to provide guidance to people of good faith (yellow lines to divide streets)
to punish people of bad faith after the fact (burglary laws and so forth)
to make legislators feel good (flag burning amendments)

Given the current financial support of government by citizens, I would say the mowing ordinance comes more under purpose 3 then purpose 2.

My grounds for saying this are the effectiveness of the snow shoveling ordinance and the snow shoveling hot line. It’s not that city employees are not responding to requests in a timely fashion; they do as I recently found out about shrubbery blocking a sidewalk. The problem is that it is rare for citizens to call in about obvious problems.

For example, dozens of students walk to UMD or Woodland Middle School, but often over half of the sidewalks on 19th Ave, E. 8th St., Woodland Ave., or St. Marie St. are not shoveled in a timely fashion after a snow storm. I doubt many students bother calling the snow shoveling hot line.

I could call in dozens of properties in this same area that have shrubbery blocking half or more of the sidewalk or trees hanging over the sidewalk at eye level. Surprise, on Garden St with all of its nice yards or city trees on one of the avenues either side of Lake Ave. just north of Superior St. But, like many people, I’m reluctant to make a “nuisance of myself” or even spend the time calling in with sufficient details for action.

I’m sure that city can’t afford to have a “walkability patrol” when it can’t afford enough police to strictly enforce the speed limits on Arrowhead Road, Snively, or Woodland Ave.

I wrote an article on walkability for the Reader Weekly three years ago:
Many of these problems still exist.

In any case, thanks for your concern about the livability of Duluth. I wish I could feel confident that your efforts will make a difference.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Are "Patriots" Good Citizens

The Fourth of July, Independence Day, is coming and many people are feeling patriotic. They will be flying flags, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and singing the Star-Spangled Banner. But is this really patriotism? For my thoughts, see Are "Patriots" Good Citizens, from the Reader Weekly, July 1, 2004.

Surprising Google ranking

I've noticed that one of my April Fool's articles for the Reader Weekly has been getting many hits recently, but I didn't know why. When I did a search for its URL,, I found no references except my own. However, when I did a search for billionaire and Duluth, this page and one other of mine were the top two out of over 26,000 results. I'll let you visit the page to find out what the interest is.

Another humor article, "Major Food Groups" has been getting even more hits, even more than this blog. Again, I find no references to the URL. When I search for "Major food groups" it is not in the top 30. When I add "chocolate", it is second out of over 25,000 results.

Gosh, if I can only figure the right tags to put in all of my pages to get this kind of ranking.

Responsive Bureaucrat

I have long been bothered by those who think "responsive bureacrat" is an oxymoron. In my experience, government employees, especially in Minnesota, take the title "civil servant" seriously.

I recently got tired of shrubbery blocking the sidewalk at a particular address and called a city hotline about it. The shrubbery was cut back within a day, not the week or two I had expected.

In appreciation, I sent the follow email to the Director of Public Works with copies to the Mayor of Duluth and a couple of city councilors. Both the Director and the Mayor responded with thank you emails.
Good Afternoon,

I have long been bothered by all the properties where sidewalks aren’t shoveled in the winter and trees and shrubs are allowed to block the sidewalk all year round. I’ve been reluctant to be a “tattle-tale” but one hedge really bothered me.

Over a month ago, I asked a resident at that address to clip it back. He, who probably only drove up to the rear entrance, came around the front and was amazed at how far over the sidewalk it went. He said he would call the property management company. About two weeks later I saw a crew mowing the lawn and hoped that the hedge would be cut back. The next day it was still untouched.

Yesterday I called the Sidewalk Snow Removal Hotline and left a message about this property. I hoped the city would prompt the owner to cut the hedge back in a week or two. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the hedge was cut back this morning. It could be cut back further yet but at least fewer people will be walking in the path worn in the boulevard.

One down, hundreds to go.

Thanks to Tom Kasper and anyone else involved in this little improvement in the walkability of Duluth.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Protecting the patient or protecting the doctor?

The cost in "An unnecessary health care cost" was piddling compared to a CYA cost that will be sent to Medicare and Blue Cross on my behalf - $1576 for an echocardiogram and stress test that I saw no need for.

Every so often a doctor hears a noise in my chest that he or she doesn’t like. Years ago a family doctor prescribed an echocardiogram and nothing abnormal was found. About ten years ago I was hospitalized overnight for a "heart attack" that was really strained chest muscles from throwing small logs. Two years ago my current physician didn’t like a whooshing; last year he said I had the “heart of an athlete”; this year he prescribed the echocardiogram and stress test.

My non-running legs got tired before my heart rate got to a level the technicians wanted; additionally, they had me on the stress test longer than most people my age.

I think this was the last time I will walk from downtown to the clinic and up the 68 steps to the doctor’s office for an annual physical. Next time, I’ll sit and meditate 20 minutes before my appointment and do my best to hold my breath completely as he listens.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The original illegal immigrants

There have been many waves of illegal immigrants to this continent, but one of the most notorious arrived
Not speaking the language,
Carrying many contagious diseases,
Having few of the skills needed for the existing society, and
Quickly established a criminal record.
Who were these invaders who would not score many points as proposed in the current immigration bill? Why, the Pilgrims.
They did not speak Algonquian, the language of the Nauset whose land they occupied.
Over half of them had died from various diseases,
They knew very little about farming,
They stole grain stores from the local people, and
Eventually they murdered many of the locals.
I guess I can't complain too much about them; both my wife and son-in-law are descended from them.

We want excellence in education?

Today we had our chimney cleaned by an ex-teacher. After 15 years of teaching English, he became a chimneysweep. He has less hassle, more fun, and more pay as a chimneysweep than he did as a teacher.

This says a lot of how much value we put on education in our country. Not that we should consider chimneysweeps as unskilled or performing an unneeded service, but that without highly-valued teachers, all other work is meaningless towards a better society.

The pH factor

When I heard a couple of guys in the fitness center mention a certain celebrity this morning, my stomach became acidic over such a base discussion. Even people who think she is non-news feel compelled to mention her, for example, Mallard Fillmore or current writer.

There is a certain herd instinct in people, in and out of the media, to make news where there is none or even provide more weight to certain people or ideas and less weight to other people or ideas, regardless of their true importance.

Political campaigns highlight this problem. The media reports on front-runners in polls and voters vote for front-runners. The polls become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wrote about this in "Reporting News or Making News", Reader Weekly, Nov. 9, 2006.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

An unnecessary health care cost

I recently learned of a ridiculous health care cost driver - unnecessary paperwork!

I've worn contact lenses for over thirty years. I remember that the eye care people always want to be paid for the lenses before handing them to the patient; they never bill for them and insurance never pays for them. Such was the case when I picked up a new pair from an opthalmologist's office in a clinic.

I was therefore surprised when I received a notice from CMS (Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services) that the claim was denied and being sent to my Medigap insurer. I called the clinic billing office saying this claim should never have been sent because I had already paid it. The representative told me that it was being sent so they could have the denial. She didn't really want to hear that they should have already known the cost lenses were not covered.

This kind of legalism is adding costs to three entities: the clinic, Medicare, and my insurance company. Maybe if it only costs five dollars per claim per entitity, that adds fifteen dollars to the cost of the service. How many tens of thousands of these unnecessary transactions occur each week? Pretty soon we're talking real money!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A literalist went broke

A literalist went broke because he bought a new bottle of medicine everyday. He wouldn't use the previous day's medicine because the label said, "Do not use if seal is missing or broken."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


How often have you seen a dead animal on the highway and thought how can people be so careless? Or, given the animal's position on the road, somebody must have deliberately hit it.

I've found out at least six times that sometimes these collisions are hard to avoid. In fact, sometime one's attempt at avoidance is counterproductive. I tried avoidance today in a small town at less than 35mph and left behind roadkill.

I have hit at least two birds, two squirrels, and two deer. And of course, thousands of insects.

The birds are the hardest to avoid. They swoop in front of one's car generally making it across or being carried by the airstream over the roof. Once, one bird clipped my car just above the windshield. Another time, a bird slammed into my radiator.

One deer walked across the highway right in front of my truck as if I weren't even there. It was dark and on a curve, and I didn't see her until she was in the opposite lane. One dead deer and $800 damage. Another kept changing its mind and would skid around to the opposite direction. I heard it click along the side of my truck. I could find no deer at the side of the road and could not even detect a scratch on the side of my truck.

Squirrels change direction more times than that deer did. I couldn't figure out how to avoid either of the two squirrels that I knowingly hit. In both cases I saw the squirrel bound across the street, and I slowed down. The squirrel would start back the way it came, change its mind and be between my tires, change its mind twice more, and then slam into or be hit by the passenger-side tires. As I looked behind, there was a gray corpse on the shoulder.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Interrupting the interrupters

Have you ever been telling a story to a group of people and have one or more interrupt you with a question, or worse have someone answer the question with your punch line?

I was in this situation this evening. I just stopped telling my story and didn't continue. Worse, nobody asked me for the rest of the story. Worse, others held forth for minutes on end with their stories.

My high school English teacher defined wit as what someone else had at the party that you have on the way home. How right she was.

After I got up from the table, I thought of the comeback to the interrupting question: am I telling a story or are we having a discussion.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The rights of one over the rights of the many

We are in Missouri which does not have a state-wide smoking ban. We chanced going to an Applebee's across the street from our hotel. We asked for non-smoking, but didn't see an ash tray in the place, not even at the bar.

We discussed this with our server. She said that Applebee's in general has a non-smoking policy but certain franchisees allow it, including her employer. However, she said, Monday smokers will be limited to a certain area.

My wife was enjoying a dessert when she smelled a cigarette. Shortly afterward I smelled it too. I quickly paid our bill, gulped my after-dinner drink, and we left. On our way out, we mentioned it to some staff and they were very sympathetic. They have to live with that day in and day out.