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.