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.