Saturday, January 26, 2008

Jeff Foxworthy is "wrong" about winter wherever

I was sent a long list of things you might do if you live in Minnesota by a graduate of my high school. You can find this same litany on several places if you search for "if you consider it a sport to gather your food by drilling through 36 inches of ice".

It is cute but the variations can be way off the mark.

I've lived in Minnesota for a total of 35 years, almost nine in Duluth. The variant that I received had many factual errors.

I know ice fishing is popular, but I think it is a lot of effort to get food.

Mille Lacs is not the coldest place in the country. Embarrass, Minnesota often is. The rest of Minnesota can be ten degrees warmer.

Some Dairy Queen's are open year around. They sell quick lunches as well as frozen custard.

Twice in 130 years has Duluth gotten over 131 inches of snow in a season ( Lots of snow might be 25 inches in a week. The Twin Cities had about 25 inches on Halloween 1991 and Duluth had 36. But on another Halloween the Twin Cities temperature was above 70.

I have seen many people underdressed in cold weather. We saw a college student walking bareheaded with the temperature just above zero. I saw a young woman walk into a coffee shop with heavy mittens, a light jacket, and a shirt unbuttoned down three buttons.

Vacation to me means going north an hour to our cabin to cut wood. It also means going to Japan or Ontario.

I measure distance both in miles and hours. Hours make sense when talking about driving time. Doesn't everybody give hours for plane, train, and bus trips?

I know few people who have hit deer more than once. I'm one of them, both times at night.

My wife does use A/C in winter to clear fog on her windshield.

Two feet of snow just about closes everything down. I've known events to be canceled when there is four inches of new snow! And we recently saw a flipped pickup truck with just a bit of glaze on the road.

Don't I wish the potholes were filled with snow.

There are only two seasons in Minnesota: winter and road construction. Actually, we do have all four seasons; spring and fall can be strikingly beautiful. See my photos on Flickr. See the Brimson and Duluth sets.

Can't we all identify many accents other than our own? I recently knew that a priest officiating at a memorial service was Irish. Sure enough, the program gave his name as O'Shea.

I don't figure I'm Down South until I get to Missouri.

Gosh, when was the last time I went to a fish fry. I am overdue for fish and chips at my favorite brew pub.

Frost on the Fourth of July? Never heard of it. But it reportedly has snowed in every month except July some year or other.

I'd have to use my snow blower in the whole precinct to put more miles on it than my car. Of course, if more people cleared their sidewalks I'd drive less.

Ten degrees is good skiing weather. Twenty degrees is good outdoor working weather. I wear a sweater indoors in our 62 degree house. However, see above about bare-skinned people.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Coincidence or campaign

Today I submitted an op-ed piece on "borrowing from our grandchildren" to the Star Tribune. This evening at dinnertime I received a call from the Star Tribune. I thought it was to verify that I sent the piece. No, it was a solicitation for home delivery of the Star Tribune.

I first said that I walked to the corner to get the papers because we were away too much for home delivery. The caller clarified that the special was for the Sunday Star Tribune. I declined saying that we had enough trying to read all the Sunday Duluth News Tribune.

Coincidence or what?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Using oil to save oil

Many are saying that plastic bags should not be used because they are made from oil and that they do not decompose readily in landfills. Some of these people either use paper bags for trash or buy bio-degradable plastic bags.

We tried bio-degradable bags years ago but they were flimsy and ripped easily. We gave them another try this week. They do seem sturdy enough for waste-basket liners. However, as I read the label I found out they were made in Norway! I wonder how much oil it takes to ship them from Norway to Minnesota. Also, the bags are corn-based; corn supposedly takes a lot of oil to raise.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sing your heart out! To hell with having any talent!

Or dance, play an instrument, write, draw or paint, play a sport, but do not let anybody dissuade you because you "don't have any talent." You are not born with the diatonic scale in your head you are not born with the ability to write a complete sentence; you are not born with ability to draw with perspective; and you are not born with all the rules and strategy of any particular sport in your head.

I just proved this again to myself with a solo in church. I sang "Where have all the flowers gone?" and was amazed by the number of people who congratulated me after the service. I've done a couple of solos before at church but they were somewhat more tentative. I filled the room with my voice today!

I made a few mistakes in notes and timing, but the overall tone was resonant and spirited. If we look for perfection in performance, we will never do anything. A friend noticed that a violin soloist at the symphony made a few mistakes early in her performance. This soloist is a professor of music and the concert-mistress of the symphony!

Six years ago lot of people didn't want to sing near me. At one concert, the whole bass section shifted to the right as the others tried to get away from me. But with the express invitation of the church choir director and her encouragement, with the help of six years of voice lessons, and with the patience of my excellent singer wife, I've slowly improved.

I wonder if my voice teacher still thinks I would embarrass myself performing at an open mike night. I know I still have a long way to go on timing and consistent pitch.

For more of my thoughts on our ability to sing, see my article Why Don't Men Sing? and an earlier blog entry Why don't men sing?

Computer idiosyncrasies and persistence

This morning I enlarged the text of an email message with Entourage of Microsoft Office for the Mac. Suddenly, everytime I moved the mouse the whole screen moved and the display was larger than the physical screen. Fortunately, the pointer moved faster than the screen, and so I could move the pointer to where I needed it. However, this was very annoying and distracting.

I tried resetting the screen size with System Preference, but each resolution gave a bigger screen than the physical display.

I checked that I still had AppleCare but it's Sunday and probably no one is available.

I talked to a friend who is a computer technician at the local university. He had heard about it but couldn't remember the fix.

I often find searching Apple's Knowledge Base a big chore, and so I just did a Google search. The first couple of phrases didn't work, but
macintosh screen bigger display
as separate words got me about 209,000 hits. I was lucky in that the answer was in the first five results. It was at
Somebody had this problem with OS9 on an iBook in April 2005. The answer was to check Universal Access in System Preferences. Sure enough, Zoom was set on. I turned Zoom off and everything went back to normal. BIG SIGH OF RELIEF!

Why did this happen? How could Entourage turn this on or off? I have increased the text size before without side effects.

When I looked back at Universal Access I noticed that increase zoom in was cmd-option-= and zoom out was cmd-option-- Maybe, just maybe I had not used cmd-shift-= for Entourage text enlargement but had used cmd-option-= Nah! I'm sure that I had used the Edit menu rather than the keyboard. Curiouser and curiouser.

In any case, thanks, Dan, for your help.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Motorcycle helmets save more than lives

Many people believe that motorcycle riders shouldn't be required to wear helmets because they will only be hurting themselves. One of the latest to state this is Charles Wheelan, The Naked Economist, in "Street Smarts: Economists Take on Traffic Safety" posted on Yahoo Finance on Jan. 8, 2008.

He wrote that "motorcyclists are most likely to harm themselves" and "that helmets save lives doesn't necessarily justify laws that motorcyclists wear them." Unfortunately, the harm of a motorcycle accident isn't limited to the riders.

First, emergency responders have to come to the scene. The greater the severity of the accident, the more time they have to spend at the scene. This could mean that the responders would not be available for other emergencies. In the case of volunteer responders, they could be called from their beds in the middle of the night.

Second, any accident can cause traffic delays. The longer the responders are at the scene, the longer traffic is delayed. In many cases, this could mean less productivity for those making deliveries, an economic by-product, aka externality.

Third, the care of a severely traumatized rider costs money. This will be coming from insurance and taxes. The care for a preventable injury is also limiting the care for others.

If motorcycle riders are truly harming only themselves, should we let their injured bodies lie by the side of the road? I wouldn't want our society to be like that.

Friday, January 18, 2008

How cold is it in Duluth?

Temperature range according to -21 to 1. Other sources: lower at higher elevations.

That's not so bad on the high side. We went skiing this morning at Spirit Mountain. However, instead of six runs then coffee then six more runs, it was 3-coffee-3.

We were also up to heading to our cabin in Brimson to split some more wood. But when we got there it was so cold that our electricity didn't work. Well, we don't know why the electricity didn't work and every neighbor we called didn't answer the phone. But since it would be -20 or lower, we didn't want to stay overnight if we couldn't keep our truck plugged in.

Meanwhile, among our supplies in the back of the truck were two bottles of beer and a bottle of wine. When we got back to Duluth, I opened one of the bottles of beer. It wouldn't pour! The beer was so slushy that it wouldn't come out very fast.

Talk about having a cold one! This really was ice-cold beer. The head was a half a glass of slush.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Nobody "won" in New Hampshire

Many reports stated that Hillary Clinton and John McCain won their respective primaries. Did they really?

Sure, they got more votes than any of their opponents, but that doesn't make them winners for three reasons.

First, Clinton had 39.44% of the votes cast on the Democrat ballot versus Obama's 36.77%. That's less than three percentage points difference. Many polls declare that they have a four percentage points margin of error. Looking at it another way, about sixty percent of the Democratic voters cast their ballots for somebody else besides Clinton.

On the Republican side, McCain had a wider margin over Romney than Clinton did over Obama, but still over sixty percent of the Republican voters voted for somebody else.

Second, the New Hampshire primary is not a "winner-take-all". Clinton and Obama both will have nine delegates each to the National Convention. That looks like a tie to me. Edwards came in third with four delegates. However, there are five superdelegates; I assume these are chosen by elected Democratic officials. I have not seen who these five are or how they'll vote in the convention.

On the Republican side, McCain did get the majority of delegates: seven to Romney's four and Huckabee's one.

Third, the turnout was 62 percent, that means 38 percent of New Hampshire's voters voted for "nobody" by not showing up. If we take this into account and include both Democrat and Republican votes in our total, then we have

38.02% - Nobody
13.24% - Clinton
12.55% - Obama
10.52% - McCain
8.95% - Romney

"Nobody" got more votes than Clinton, Obama, and McCain combined.

This is democracy?


Buy online or in person, which is better?

Should I buy online and save a trip to a store? If I do so, I don't have to make a trip to a store, but then I might have to stay at home for when the purchase is delivered. If I buy online I sort of buy "sight unseen", having only word description and maybe a picture. On the other hand, online may be the only way to buy a particular product, especially if it is only available out-of-town. For example, we could not find a tree-planting bar in any local store, but found one online from a hardware store in Georgia.

Should I buy in person and support the local economy? If I go to a store I can see and handle the product. Well, not always because some products are so encased in plastic that one can only visualize how they work. If I decide I like the product, I can go home with it and use it the same day. And I don't have to pay shipping charges. This is a benefit if I stop at several stores on the same trip.

If I generally follow the rule if I can get it in town, I'll buy in town.

For example, I recently wanted to buy a particular used book. Maybe I could have gotten it in town, but I would have had to scan shelves in many stores. I went to and looked for it. abebooks found several available copies in various conditions and prices. I found one I liked and ordered it; it arrived in about ten days.

On the other hand, if I had gone to a used book store, I might have found some other books I didn't even know I was looking for.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Saving trees or saving other green?

I received an email today from an organization asking me if I would rather not receive paper copies of its publications. The message title included "Save a Tree". I don't think that this organization or any other is so much interested in saving trees as they are in saving money. Putting out a glossy magazine ain't cheap.

Additionally, growing trees for pulp can be a sustainable enterprise. Cut the trees down and some more grow up. Let the trees stand too long and they rot and die. Of course, trees as a group were doing fine before the saw was invented.

What reducing the demand for paper might do is to reduce the opportunity and incentive for non-sustainable practices.

Still, I think most save-a-tree campaigns are either a feel-good endeavor or a cost-cutting move.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A different approach to politics loses steam

I, like many people, am tired of the posturing of the two so-called major parties. Nor do feel comfortable with their take on many issues - they are often too ideological rather than practical.

I also don't like the current process of selecting presidents. The candidates run from state-to-state and get weeded out in the early states as much by the media as by "voters" who have no loyalty to the party whose candidates these voters are choosing.

It was a pleasure to learn of Unity08, an organization that would organize an online convention in June, registered member could discuss and select the candidates, and Unity08 would put the president/vice-president pair selected on the ballot in all 50 states.

When I went to Unity08 this weekend, I found out that they have scaled back and the only web page available is a letter announcing this scaling back. There are no links for further information or contacts. Although Google lists several pages for Unity08, they all link to a "Page not available" page.

I went to a Wikipedia page on Unity08 and found quite a few details about the organization, both pro and con. One of the most serious calls into question promises made and the legitimacy of its financing. See "Questions that Unity08 will not answer".

Like so many endeavors with great ideas and hopes, it seems to have floundered on human frailty. Let us hope that somewhere, sometime, somebody will start a new political movement that is based more on the Founders idea of "public virtue" than on power, prestige, and pecuniary rewards.

Unfortunately, such a group will have to overcome the "spoiler" label. However, this is a false attack. The real spoilers are the people who stay home and don't vote at all. In almost any election, the stay-at-homes outnumber those who voted for the so-called "winner".

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Circuit City, I could have told you so

When Circuit City announced that it was firing its highest paid sales people, I thought that it would be counter-productive. The lower paid people would probably not be as knowledgeable and would thus sell less. Also, many customers would boycott Circuit City and go to other electronic retailers. This week my thoughts proved correct. Circuit City's holiday sales fell 11.4 percent and its stock is "about 80 percent below where it was the day before it made the staffing announcement" last spring.

"Cost-cutting backfires for retailer Circuit City", Duluth News Tribune, September 12, 2008, Rachel Beck, Associated Press. For an online version, try
If that doesn't work because of archiving, try a search for

"Circuit City" staffing "Rachel Beck"

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Foolishness has no nationality

The latest reported incident in the Gulf of Hormuz has two interpretations. If either scenario is allowed to be played out militarily, it will be a disaster for all concerned, military and civilian, American and Iranian alike.

If the Gulf of Hormuz incident is another Gulf of Tonkin incident, blown out of proportion and used as an excuse for an attack on Iran, Iranian citizens will suffer through no fault of their own.

If the Gulf of Hormuz incident is a direct provocation by certain elements of the Iranian military, it is a serious miscalculation. These provocateurs may think that the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and does not have the resources to attack Iran. It may be true that the Army is stretched thin in these two conflicts, but the U.S. Navy still has a lot of firepower in long-range artillery, cruise missiles, and aircraft, all of which could hit any point in Iran. Does Iran have sufficient defenses against this firepower? I think not other than world opinion. World opinion has not stopped U.S. Presidents and Congress in previous cases.

If either scenario is played out, loss of Iranian life, property, and infra-structure will be mind-boggling, American politics will be even more polarized, the U.S. economy will decline precipitously, and terrorists will be working overtime to strike American interests.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Free market is a construct, not reality

Some write that there should be no bail-out of borrowers who are defaulting on their loans. These commentators write that the borrowers willingly entered into a contract and should accept the consequences of their inability to pay. These commentators also say the lenders shouldn't get any help as the lenders also willingly entered into a contract.

Like "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" there ain't no such thing as a free market. Those who preach about a free market also forget about the detail of externalities. Few transactions are between a willing buyer and a willing seller with no effect on anybody else. If a dealer sells a car to a buyer who knows the brakes are bad, it may be a third party who suffers damage to life, limb, or property when that car doesn't stop. If a factory belching smoke sells its products far away, it is the people who live nearby who suffer the effects of pollution.

Similarly, a large number of defaults can affect more people than the borrowers and the lenders. More conservative lenders are going to take even more care choosing their borrowers. This in turn will drive up interest rates for more solid borrowers. There are already stories about the "credit crunch".

Defaults of home mortgages are going to put more houses on the market. A larger supply of houses is going to depress prices for those who would like to willingly sell their houses. The depressed prices may be good for potential buyers, but the increased mortgage rates and decreased availability of money to lend could offset the low price benefit. This could lead to fewer buyers which would lead to even lower prices.

Low demand for houses also affects realtors and builders. The lower earnings for these two groups could also lead to less spending by them in other areas, like autos and appliances and many other goods and services.

Fewer purchases by more people leads to a slower economy. Couple this with rising fuel costs, is it any wonder the stock market is in turmoil?

The sorry state of foreign languages in the United States

I went to the UMD library today for another purpose, but before I left, I scanned the available newspapers. There were only two foreign language newspapers: Le Monde and Le Monde Diplomatique. They used to have Die Zeit, Dagens Nyheter (Swedish), and a Spanish language newspaper or two.

I knew UMD* had dropped Dagens Nyheter a few years ago. I found that surprising because they generally have at least a half dozen students from Sweden. In fact, I would often hear Swedish in the hallways.

I suppose that there was no demand. That is sad that so few people are interested in reading material in other languages.

The good news is that the Rochester Police recently hired a woman from Superior WI. Her education and experience includes a major in modern Arabic from the Defense Language Institute and five years as an Arabic translator for the Army. Click here for the story.

Why would the Rochester Police need an Arabic speaker? The Mayo Clinic draws people from all over the world, including many Arab countries.
* University of Minnesota, Duluth

Monday, January 07, 2008

Quote on religion and politics

"...when folks get to the point of voting their religion and worshiping their politics, you think there is any difference between them?"
Sheri S. Tepper, The Family Tree, p. 329

Quote on immigration

"They were welcome, for a sensible country needs the talents of a varied people in order to get all the things done that need to be done."
Sheri S. Tepper, The Family Tree, p. 53

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Religion in politics

I recently read three interesting columns on religion in politics and politicians who try to show how religious they are.

Faith vs. the Faithless
David Brooks
New York Times - 2007-12-07

Brooks wrote a good analysis of Mitt Romney's speech on faith about the conflict between those who want religion to be very much part of public discourse and those who want to leave religion as a private matter.

Brooks thinks the speech was a good one, but he is not enthusiastic about it. Rather than various religious points of view competing in the public square, Romney maintains that those with "faith" are being victimized by the faithless. "Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?" "There was no hint of ... the religion most people know–the religion that imposes restraints upon the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings."

The Times also wrote "The Crisis of Faith", 2007-12-07

"A presidential candidate cowed into defending his way of worshiping God by a powerful minority determined to impose its religious tenets as a test for holding public office."

Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune wrote "The religiosity test: Doubters need not apply" about the religious test several candidates are expecting; that is, one must believe in a single god. Agnostics, atheists, and humanists need not even try. They seem to ignore the provision in the U.S. Constitution "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office".

I read Chapman's column in the 2008-01-02 Star Tribune; his latest column available on the Chicago Tribune web site was 2007-12-23. He did write several on religion in presidential politics.

A Microscopic Insurgent

Op-ed by Mark D. Drapeau
New York Times

Cholera is a real danger in Iraq with at "least 30,000 Iraqis [having displayed] cholera-like symptoms"

Cholera is spread through untreated water, insurgent areas have less treated water creating poor areas, poor areas breed more insurgents, insurgents make having treated water more difficult, untreated water creates poor areas...

And it doesn't help that insurgents are using chlorine trucks as weapons.

My question is why U.S. and Iraqi authorities don't wage a bigger propaganda campaign on how insurgents are hurting Iraqis more than Americans.

Intercepting Iran's Take on America

Op-ed by Thomas Friedman
New York Times

A great spoof on the latest U.S. assessment of Iran - a supposed Iranian National Intelligence Estimate of America

Friedman points out all the weaknesses and misdirections of American politics with few understanding what the real problems are and few working on meaningful solutions to them.

The Dictatorship of Talent

Op-ed by David Brooks
New York Times

According to Brooks, China is no longer a Communist society but a corpocracy ruled by an elite based on merit. The merit is based more on passing tests heavy on memorization than on creativity. Will it be able to move to an information society?

If CTRIP and others are an indication, probably. CTRIP is a successful Chinese online travel complany.