Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Recycle bread, save millions of stalks of wheat

As I sit in front of our fireplace, I contemplate the slogans about how many trees are saved by recycling. We have probably burned twelve trees in our fireplace this year, from deadfall to those cut down with a chain saw. Actually more, much of the deadfall was trees about four inches around.

However, twelve trees from 80 acres is probably a miniscule portion of the trees that were either blown down or rotted. In fact, some of the large trees that we are burning should have been cut down long ago because of all the rotted wood in them.

All of the trees that we burned were aspen, almost a weed. Like birch, they grow from rhizomes, no need to replant. When we bought our property 17 years ago, there were a few dozen birches 12 inches or more in diameter, all dying or dead. Birch borer had infested them. Now we have several dozen birches scattered around, mostly on trail edges, each 3-5 inches in diameter. Aspens are even more vigorous in replenishing themselves, sometimes.

Within three years after we bought the property, there was one large stand of aspen that was blown down in a heavy storm. It still hasn't recovered and is mostly scrub. However, the property is filled with aspen of all sizes, some springing up where we don't want it. Other species can also regenerate rapidly, we have balsam of Gilead (bam) and red maple springing up all over. And balsam firs are really all over. I just wish our white spruce and white pine were as vigorous.

My point is that with stewardship that forests often regenerate themselves. Sometimes they need a little help with seedlings from a nursery, sometimes they don't need help.

A second point is that some percentage of our pulp wood comes from private land, some owned by large corporations. The land owners have an interest in regenerating their forests.

Yep, I recycle, after all it can cost more to start from scratch to make paper than it does to recycle used paper. I just don't want to make a religion out of preserving every single tree no matter where it is.

Monday, December 29, 2008

One of my favorite economists is running for Congress

I've enjoyed reading Charles Wheelan's column's on Yahoo Finance and I enjoyed reading his book, The Naked Economist. He always struck me as writing common sense rather than dogma. That is, nothing is as simple as we would like it to be, but here are some guidelines to help us getting the results we really want.

He has now decided to put his economic knowledge and common sense into being a U.S. Representative from the fifth district of Illinois. See "Goodbye Yahoo! Finance, Hello Congress?"

I wish more in government were as interested in looking for solutions as he is rather than posturing for stature. For more on his campaign, see Wheelan for Congress website.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Obama not the first minority president

Barack Obama is not the first minority president! All presidents in recent memory have been minority presidents. Turnout has rarely exceeded 60% of the eligible voters. That means that about 40% or more of the eligible voters voted "I don't give a damn" or "none of the above".

According to the Washington Post over 131 million people voted in 2008 elections, or 61.6% of eligible voters. That means there were 213 million eligible voters. Infoplease, based on New York Times figures, says there were 231 million eligible voters. Whichever figure is used, that means 90 to 100 million eligible voters did not show up!

CNN gives the final totals as 66,883,230 for Obama and 58,343,671 for McCain. I don't know who to feel more sorry for, Obama for coming in second or McCain for coming in third. Well, Obama can take some comfort that with his 29-31% of the eligible voters he did somewhat better than Reagan did with his supposed 1980 landslide with 28% of the eligible voters. See "If you don't vote, you have only yourself to blame".

More performers than audience or preaching to the choir

I sang another solo today, but it wasn't to a full house. It was the first service of the Wassail service that was scheduled two weeks ago and cancelled because of the weather.

My quick count was there were 27 choir members, soloists, and readers, but only four non-performing people in the sanctuary. This was probably because it was the early service and a holiday weekend. The second service definitely had more non-performers than performers.

During my "solo" my wife and most other people joined in the chorus. I did three verses of "Lord of the Dance", Sidney Carter's words to "'Tis a gift to be simple". It was really fun, almost every one joined in, and my knees didn't shake.

I did wake up at three this morning drawing a blank on the chorus. I could get, "Dance then, wherever you may be" but then what's next. After tossing and turning a lot, I got up and checked: "I am the Lord of the Dance said he." As it was, I only bobbled one syllable in the performance.

"Lord of the Dance" is in The Christmas Revels Songbook, available from For five bucks extra, you can get the CD.

The album is also available from iTunes.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Thanks to my six loyal readers!

A big thank you to my six or so regular readers of this blog. I get this number from Feedburner, the site that makes my blog available as a feed and tracks usage.

It's not as good as the over 150 people who said they enjoyed my regular column in the Reader Weekly, but I don't have to meet a deadline to reach you.

I do hope to have an entry of 100-400 words every other day. It will be either observations on the news or just a tale from my own life.

If you see me or correspond with me by email, please let me know what you think.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Musical performance when you're not among the best

Tonight at the Christmas Eve service I sang a solo of Sankta Lucia, in Swedish, by memory. I am not really among the good singers, but I keep striving. It is made somewhat more difficult when one is a poor musician married to a really good musician with a good ear.

Anyhow, with years of voice lessons and many repetitions of a song, I can give an acceptable performance. I have done five or six recital solos at the music conservatory and about three solos at church. All were politely received and sometimes better received.

In rehearsing Sankta Lucia at home, my wife had almost always found some error in my timing or pitch. The last day or two, she's remarked that I had improved. Today before the service I ran through it with the music director. Wouldn't you know, I forgot the words before I finished the first verse? Without looking at the score, I did remember them and tried again. The music director's only comment was that I rushed certain parts.

The moment of truth arrives. I am up in front of over 100 people all watching me. No music in my hands. No mike in front of me. The music director plays the opening bars, which I listen to intensely. I start. Oh, no! I don't feel on pitch. I keep plowing on. Think ahead to the words of the next phrase. Remember to take breaths. Hold the half notes long enough. Look at the congregation, scan from side to side, sometimes look directly at one person. My knees start shaking. Am I getting the high note correctly? A mere B below middle C, for crying out loud! I make it to the end and hold the last note longer. I pause and start to walk away. My wife is beaming. The music director is grinning. The congregation applauds. I turn back, bow slightly, and say thank you.

After the service, over a dozen people told me that they enjoyed my performance. I deliberately sought out a couple of really good musicians who were sitting in the back row. Did my voice carry well enough? They said they heard me clearly and complimented me on my performance.

What a high!

And I get to sing another solo on Sunday! What a way to end the year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Explanation of rising health care costs in five words

Insurance will pay for it!

How often have you heard in response to a broken bone or a dented fender: "Insurance will pay for it"? People say this as a way of saying the cost of fixing a problem is no problem; it won't be out of their pockets.

But it is out of their pockets in higher premiums and even higher taxes.

People go to the doctor for things that might go away on their own, but "insurance will pay for it." People go the doctor for minor conditions for things that aren't very serious and with which they aren't bothered that much, but "insurance will pay for it."

Doctors will perform procedures on minor conditions because a patient doesn't have to worry about the cost. In fact, doctors often don't ask if a patient wants the procedure done; they say, "I'm going to do such and such". After all, "insurance will pay for it."

Often, insurance doesn't pay for it. Insurance pays part of the stated cost. Big insurance companies negotiate prices as discounts. "We'll include your health care facility in our coverage if you give us an xx% discount." So it is in the interest of health care providers to keep their official prices high in order to be sure their actual prices give them an adequate compensation.

Of course, the more people use insurance, the higher the premiums become. The insurers have to raise enough money to cover all the claims and still make a profit.

You can argue about how insurance executives are overpaid, how doctors are overpaid, and how many inefficiencies there are in health care, but the basic fact is that the less people really make price-benefit choices, the higher the costs will be.

This latter point is the argument that promoters of health savings accounts and patient choice make. If people buy their health care on rational economic choices, the costs will be brought under control.

Unfortunately, rational economic choice for health care is not like rational economic choice for a new TV or car or for what kind of vacation one will have.

If you are injured in a car accident and rescued while unconscious, health care providers are going to give you the best care they know. Even if you are conscious, will you be thinking clearly?

What if your child suddenly becomes gravely ill? Are you going to spend the time to research what doctors can give the most cost effective care? No, you are either going to see the doctors you already know or you are going to see the closest doctor.

We are not going to solve our "health care crisis" until a sufficient number of hard-hearted patient choice advocates and a sufficient number of soft-hearted "damn the true cost" advocates discuss all of these issues rather than grandstand.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Finding gloves that work as claimed

I have many pairs of gloves, work gloves, dress gloves, and ski gloves and mittens. I sometimes where them in layers, either glove liners or bigger gloves over smaller gloves. Some of the gloves are cheap and some are moderately priced. None of them keep my hands warm in all conditions, even with hand warmers. Do I have to get mountain climber gloves to keep my hands warm.

When I try on a pair of gloves in a store, they seem so soft and cozy. When I start to use them, they sometimes feel almost useless.

I did see an online site for battery heated gloves, $249 for the four-ounce battery pack version and $349 for the lithium-ion version. I would like to find a store that has these. Why pay these prices and find out your hands are still cold?

When I ski, I find that my right thumb get colder before any other finger. This may because I whacked it with a hammer many years ago while in an awkward position. I call the cold thumb my early warning system.

Interestingly, if I'm outside walking or snowshoeing, my hands don't seem to get cold as often. I was using a $9.97 remainder table pair to blow snow yesterday and I had to go in before I was finished; I had done the same on previous occasions with "better" gloves.

I blew snow at the cabin today and started getting cold fingers. The temperature was about 20 degrees F.!! After lunch, we went snowshoeing and my hands stayed relatively warm for the 30-40 minute trek. Later I split wood and didn't get cold hands like I did last week. I wore the cheap gloves for all these activities.

I figured out why the gloves don't always keep my hands warm when I'm active. I'm gripping snowblower handles or ski poles or ax handles. The gloves are being compressed and lose some of their insulation properties, no matter how super-duper the seller claims they are. (I almost said manufacturer, but no matter what the brand, they all are labeled "Made in China".)

Maybe the next time I shop for gloves, I should ask for a warranted rating and not accept gloves with something like "Keeps you hands warm in all conditions" or "Our special liner gives more warmth." I should ask for gloves with a rating such as keeps your hands at 60 degrees F. for an hour or more when the temperature is -10 degrees.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Obtuse books can have interesting insights

I had to return the library book The Global Village by Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers, published in 1989. I would like to have reread it and write a more extensive review of it, but there are so many more books on my reading list.

In general I found it rather obtuse but it has some interesting observations and predictions on and off the mark. Their main thesis was that the tetrad would provide a reasoning tool to better understand developing trends. The opposing corners of the tetrad are enhance-obsolete and retrieve-reverse. Is this a two-dimensional dialectic, an either-or at another level?

p. 48 Music is right-brained and left-brained. We learn notes and then understand harmonic structure.

p. 60 "Propganda cannot succeed where people have no trace of Western culture."
- Jacques Ellul, Propaganda
McLuhan and Powers claim that literacy is required to be susceptible to propaganda. However, many illiterate people subscribed to the teachings of churches.

p. 84 Linking of military adventures to immigration. Immigration "will splinter the white Anglo-Saxon cast of U.S. government, education, and business structures and create a salad-like mélange of ethnic minorities without any single one being predominant."

"[M]ost native-born Americans will be unprepared for the new consumer economy which will emerge, offering service-related jobs not always suited to their intelligence or training. Ethnic diversity will help ignite a full-blown economy based on information exchange."

And much more.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Are Detroit vehicles worse than the competition?

Much is being written about the pay of Detroit auto employees and the quality of the cars they make. The pay is somewhat distorted because it seems to include paying for current retirees. The quality of cars may vary. See "$73 and hour, adding it up", David Leonhardt, New York Times, 2008-12-09.

We have a 1997 Ford F-150 (standard cab) and a 2002 Toyota Prius.

The truck has only let me down once in the sense I couldn't use it right at the moment. It had a flat tire on the way to work.

Both cars have had warning lights come on, almost about the same number. However, the Prius seems to do this at the start of big trips. We have been lucky in that if we didn't get immediate service, we at least got assurance that we could continue our trip.

Because I drive the truck more often on dirt roads and don't wash it as often as I should, I had major hidden rust damage. I did get the damage repaired. Even this year I've had people ask if the truck is new.

I'd say it is a wash on quality.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Companies are still giving away razors... the hopes you'll buy their blades.

First, it was the mobile phone companies selling phones at steep discounts when you bought a two year contract. Now it is VOIP providers giving away their service within their network in the hopes you will subscribe to additional services. (VOIP is voice over internet protocol.)

We and our adult children all have Skype. We can have a video call with our son, his wife, and their toddler in Tokyo or a video call with our daughter and her family in the Twin Cities. Or we can have a three-way voice-only conversation. All of this is free.

However, if you would like to call a land line, you need a "calling card" or a monthly subscription. I opted for a $10 "card" that will be automatically renewed to my credit card. So far, we've only used it to call our daughter after she shut her computer down. My wife plans to use it to call her sisters. The charge was 2.1 or 2.3 cents a minute. This beats the 6.9 cents that a long distance provider we had been using.

Another advantage is a clearer signal. The signal quality for the more expensive provider seems to have been deteriorating.

We could use my cell phone to make "free" long-distance calls; I have yet to use much more than ten percent of my minutes. However, one sister lives in Ontario and the charge is 65 cents per minute! And she lives closer to us than people in the U.S. on either coast. So, 2.3 cents a minute is a real bargain.

Today CNet News had an article on truphone, which allows iPod Touch* users to use there iPods for VOIP. Again, its free for truphone subscriber to truPhone subscriber. To call land lines the charge is six cents a minute to many places in the world.

Free razors! Extra charges may apply for blades and shaving cream.

* truphone is only for the second generation iPod Touch. You also need a headphone and microphone.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Appropriate defense" is coming!

Sometimes I'm lucky in my forecasts ("Republican principles are contradictory").

The Washington Post published "U.S. to Raise 'Irregular War' Capablities", 2008-12-04. The policy directive was signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England on Monday. DoD has been working on this for a year.

It's not exactly a fulfillment of my forecast, but I'm pleased to see that there have been people addressing this "war" instead of the last war.

Failure of Big Three automakers not necessarily failure for dealers

Some are implying that the failure of the Big Three automakers will mean the failure of their dealers. But this assumes that all of these dealers sell only Big Three vehicles. On the contrary, many dealers sell several manufacturers' vehicles, both domestic and "foreign". For example, Kolar of Duluth MN sells Toyota, Hyundai, Scion, Buick, GMC, Chrevrolet, and Pontiac.

Others saw the writing on the wall long ago. Kari Toyota of Superior WI started out as a Studebaker dealer. How many readers even know what a Studebaker is? Kari had many ups and downs, but eventually became a Toyota-Jeep Eagle dealer. Kari sold the Jeep line in 2001 and is now exclusively a Toyota dealer.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Republican principles are contradictory

Some "conservatives" are calling for a return to basic Republican principles: less government, low taxes, and strong defense. I posit that these are contradictory and sometimes even useless.

Generally the proponents of strong defense imply a military that is capable of blowing other people up better than other people can blow us up. This means bigger and faster ships and planes with bigger things to blow people up.

In order to have this kind of defense, you need to have a large bureaucracy to procure, staff, and maintain it. A large bureaucracy means large government

If you have lots of thing to blow people up and a large bureaucracy then you will need to raise lots of taxes or borrow lots of money. One estimate I read was that World War II took up to 42% of the gross domestic product.

The strong defense of blowing people up is not working.

First, having more nuclear weapons than anybody else is not doing much good. And if they were used, say, like Hillary Clinton declared, to obliterate Iran, who would die? How many "bad guys" are there in any given locale? How many women and children would be obliterated? Probably more women and children than bad guys.

Second, all these "surgical strikes" with 500-lb. bombs and Predator missiles somehow have killed many women and children. Even if no women or children are killed, many believe there were. The many are both allies and enemies. Such perceptions do not hearts and minds win.

Third, what country seriously has the intent and the resources to invade and occupy the continental United States?

We have only two military concerns: nuclear proliferation and piracy.

The concern of nuclear proliferation has to be addressed with more active diplomacy than has ever been applied. If China were to increase its nuclear arsenal, what would the U.S. do but increase its nuclear arsenal. Now if the U.S., with its huge nuclear arsenal, is using harsh words against Iran and North Korea, should it surprise us that these states want to have nuclear arsenals? If the U.S. can have a nuclear arsenal for a deterrent, shouldn't these states also have a nuclear arsenal for a deterrent? It's just another arms race in the history of arms races covering almost all of human history. The only solutions are to have all sides back off, to have a nervous stalemate, or to use the arms. The latter two solutions are expensive, which doesn't help keep taxes low.

The concern of piracy cannot be addressed with diplomacy and cannot be addressed with a "strong defense". Well, diplomacy would help in isolating and reducing support for the pirates. Diplomacy would also help in co-ordinating the activities of various navies and other forces to defend ships against pirates. The "strong defense" of super-duper fighter jets, heavy tanks, and super carriers won't defend against pirates. What are needed are faster armed boats and many helicopters. But the helicopters should be prepared for Stinger missiles, something the "strong defense" provided to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight Soviet helicopters.

What about terrorism? The defense of terrorism is a combination of diplomacy and police work. Diplomacy is needed to isolate and ferret out terrorists. One country cannot do this all over the world. Police work is needed because terrorists often create and implement their deeds in cities, not isolated mountain hideouts. They are going to come in two and threes, not in brigades. Effective police work is knowing about suspicious activity and halting it before it can become a catastrophe.

Although limited government and low-taxes are laudable goals, let's hope the proponents of these change their goal of "strong defense" to "appropriate defense".

See also "India's 9/11? Not exactly", Amitav Ghosh, New York Times, 2008-12-02