Saturday, February 28, 2009

Skilled woodsman? Hah!

We visited our cabin today for the first time in three weeks. My intent was to cut down a small tree, cut it into rounds, and split the rounds. However, there was one problem, a blocked driveway.

Our plow guy comes by only when there is six inches of new accumulation; there had been only about three in Brimson. However, when the county plowed the road, they left a ridge that was over a foot high. If I rammed our four-wheel drive truck into that pile, I would probably have had to hand shovel the snow out from under the truck. So, I fired up the snowblower and cleared a drivable opening. Since I had the snowblower going, I cleared the whole driveway and many paths. I also cleared a path to my chosen tree. Two hours later I was ready to topple the tree.

While not quite ready. I had to change the chain on the saw, fuel it, and add bar oil.

OK, which way do I want the tree to fall? Well, it's leaning away from the way I really want it to go. If I cut it so it falls the way it's leaning, it might hit some seedlings we planted last spring. Can I make it topple so that it won't hit the cabin?

I think so. First make a nice notch about a third way through the tree. Oh yes, this tree is a monster, an aspen about seven inches in diameter where I'm cutting. Hm, the saw doesn't seem to be going through very fast. I thought the chain was sharp. Oh, well!

Now I cut from the opposite side about an inch above the bottom of the notch. The cutting seems to be a bit faster. At about an inch from the notch, the tree starts moving. I step back and watch it fall pretty much where I wanted it. Better yet, its in the path that I had cleared with the snowblower, making it easier to delimb and cut into rounds.

The delimbing went fairly easily, but I didn't cut all the twists off each limb. That would have taken longer but it did make it more difficult to get them out of the way.

Now I'm ready to cut it into rounds. I start at the top end and on the second cut I jam the saw. No amount of wiggling it would get it out. I tried lifting the 20+ foot tree, but I couldn't do it myself. I got my wife to help me and we had it out in a moment.

The rest went quickly as I judged quickly whether I could finish a cut from the top or the bottom. Because the tree was lying partly on a foot of snow, this was fairly easy. The cutting also seemed faster when I used the leveraging teeth on the saw housing.

We loaded our rounds up in a cart and piled them next to a larger stump I use for splitting.

Now the bad news. Our time was running out and we wanted to be on our way to Duluth. We had a bit of packing and locking up to do. However, I'm determined to split at least one round.

I take the biggest and whack! It falls in two at the first blow. Drat, the halves are not equal; I hit off center. Whack each of the halves. Same story, off center. Gosh, this would looks great. No rot, no soft spots. It should burn nicely next year.

I can't stop there; I have to do one more. Same off center whacks. But not as good quality wood. There are some whitish layers inside.

I was also taken down a notch when I looked at the stump. None of my cuts were parallel to the ground.

The bright side is we have a small start on next years wood supply and I have no injuries other than sore shoulders.

Personal service? A personal reply

I sent a note to my insurance agency with reference to "Personal service?" This afternoon I received a reply from the manager of the agency. She wrote it today, a Saturday!

What was more surprising was that she told me that the insurance company has freed its agents to develop their own software and she asked my advice about consultants.

I gave her some suggestions about various resources in the Twin Cities and said I would pass her message on to some friends that might have contacts. Then I realized that there is a resource much closer to me. My daughter is the President of a consulting company that is way bigger and better than the tiny one-person software development company I had in the 80s and 90s. I hadn't understood the full scope of her company until I visited the website of the company, Fredrickson Communications.

I wonder if this blog entry will get me referral fees:)

Oh, yes, since I've gotten such a positive reaction from the insurance agency, I should mention that it is Jacob Group Agency representing Allstate Insurance. The contact is Rob Jacob and the manager is Lana Haben.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Splitting portions for variety; a culinary ramble

This evening we went to our neighborhood restaurant, Chester Creek Café, partly for the specials, partly for a reason I didn't know about.

The specials were mussels and a small steak. We ordered one of each dish and split them. It made a nice two course meal. The portions were such that we had room for dessert, the third course.

Ah! The dessert! My wife suggested that we go out to eat tonight because she knew they had one of my favorite desserts - French silk pie. I got the last piece and what a marvel! Chocolate and butter and sugar mixed to a smooth elegance, maybe it could have used a bit more chocolate. Topped with heavy cream whipped with nothing more than a touch of vanilla, maybe.

The bill ran up because we had room for dessert and coffee.

We spoke with the manager afterwards about the portion size and the whole experience. She said that one of the owners decided as prices of ingredients went up to reduce the portion size without changing the prices. This is one time I won't object to reduced size at the same price.

As far as the economy affecting the restaurant business, there were few empty tables when we went in. When we left a bit after eight, there were even more cars in the parking lot than when we came. We went to the Duluth Grill for lunch earlier this week. It's a bit downscale from Chester Creek Café, but there was a wait for a table.

Interestingly, a previous owner closed the Duluth Grill because of the smoking ban. I think that once the smoke odor cleared from restaurants, non-smokers went out more because they wouldn't come home smelling like ashtrays.

Diners splitting portions for economy?

The Star Tribune had an article today about more restaurant diners splitting meals, attributing it to cost savings. See "Dining out? Split portions gain acceptance" by Lauren Shepherd for the Associated Press.

Could it also be because so many restaurants serve such large portions that few people really want to eat it all? If you're eating in your home town, you can always ask for "a box". But if you're traveling, a box is only useful if you have access to a microwave.

I often find myself looking for what is the smallest serving, stuffing myself, or asking for a box. Sometimes I don't even go out because I know I will be served too much!

I don't think it's just the economy. I wrote about split portions in 2006. See
"Why pick on McDonald's and Wal-Mart?"

Are we hummingbirds or eagles?

As I was doing my singing practice, my mind wandered to two other activities that I could do. The image of hummingbirds flitting in and out around a feeder sprang into my mind.

Do we act like hummingbirds, darting from one task to another? Do we assume that the feeder will always be there with no thought of how it came to be?

Or do we act like eagles, soaring high above the ground, searching for just the right opportunity? Do we also realize that we will fail most of the time, but we will go back into the sky to look again for the right opportunity?

Personal service?

I received email this morning supposedly from the agency for the insurance company with whom we have our house insurance. It starts out

"Dear Melvyn,

Thank you for being" an xxx "customer."

It ends with

yyy "Agency"

The from address of the email is yyy Agency

That doesn't seem very personal to me.

When I clicked "Download pictures" on the message, a picture of the agent did appear. I also put the cursor over "Contact me" and saw that it was the agent's personal email address on the insurance company's server.

It's amazing how "easy" it is to tailor messages, but it takes a bit more effort to make them truly personal. Effort costs money, and...

BTW, I don't plan to contact the agent. We'll let our insurance stand as it is.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Government of whom, by whom, and for whom? Or which Golden Rule?

Reading the article in this morning's Duluth News Tribune about the start of Congressional hearings on health care, I couldn't help but think of the above title. The halls of Congress are swarming with lobbyists for insurance companies, medical device companies, and other health-related corporations. Are there any lobbyists for the patients?

If there are few or no lobbyists for patients, we are seeing another example of government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations. Or, the Golden Rule means he who has the gold rules.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Which is most important? Individual, community, or capital?

The answer is none of the above. Without individuals there are no communities. Without communities, individuals cannot thrive. Without individuals and communities, there is no capital. Without capital, individuals and communities cannot increase their material and social wealth.

I was inspired to write this blog after listening to Catherine Austin Fitts on "The Dismal Science" January 30, 2009 podcast of "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio.

She spoke about the "Popsicle Index" as a better measure of the financial health of a community than any other measure. That is, how willing are parents in a community to let children go off by themselves to get a Popsicle or other treat?

She also spoke about capitalism versus communities. Think about BigBox coming into a community. BigBox promises jobs to induce the community to allow BigBox to have its way. But BigBox builds out in the middle of nowhere so that people must drive to shop rather than walk. The community is also required to build new water mains, sewer lines, roads, and other amenities. Then BigBox decides that it didn't make enough profit from the store and leaves town.

But capitalism is also members of the community pooling their resources to build a business, say a tomato canning plant. Maybe the local plant doesn't have all the whizbang efficiencies that a BigFoods plant has, but the plant will be controlled by members of the community, not by some overpaid executive forty floors above the streets of a city a thousand miles away.

Communities can be overbearing, enforcing codes of conduct that have no relation to the welfare of the community. An overbearing community can stifle innovation and creativity. Think of all the people who went to the "big city" to get away from a real or imagined controlling environment.

Individuals can be cantankerous and dangerous. Some take individual freedom to ridiculous lengths, taking freedom from others. Think of speeders. They rush down the highway, damning anyone who dares to go the speed limit. In fact, our culture tends to reward the speeders by claiming those who obey the law are holding up traffic. Aren't the speeders pushing traffic?

Unfortunately, neither "major" party seems to understand the need for balance among these three "interests". Both favor certain categories of individuals to the detriment of other categories of individuals; both favor certain corporations over others; and both favor communities only when it serves their parties' agenda.

When, oh when, will those who understand the need for this balance bolt the "major' parties and form a long overdue "third" party with wide support?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Two wrongs can make a right

Put a toxic metal and a poisonous gas together and you have something people and animals can't live without. Take the metal sodium and mix it with chlorine and you have salt; something we can't live without.

Why do you think deer stand in the middle of the road? Why do crows congregate in the middle of the road where there is no roadkill? It's all the salt that has been spread on the road to keep us safe. In the case of the crows its probably also the sand to help them digest their food.

Americans tend to eat too much salt. Many fast food places, not just the biggies dump salt on fries and other food. Try to get salt-free popcorn at a movie. Thirty-five years after living in Europe and having a relatively low salt diet, we still notice how salty American food is. Even at restaurants that pride themselves on the quality of their food.

But sometimes things go the other way. Low sodium food can be almost tasteless. We bought V-8 for a long time but it was too salty. We found Knudsen's Very Veggie which has a moderate amount of salt. My wife once bought Knudsen's Low Sodium version and it was bland. Last week on our ski trip we bought low-sodium V-8 and it was also bland. My wife will use it for soup base or mix with the regular Very Veggie.

There are only two places for excess salt: on pretzels and on the rim of a Margarita glass.

One last thought: I could never understand the argument against fluoridated water that it contains a poisonous gas. Do these people abstain from salt because it contains a poisonous gas?

Oops! A second last thought. We have started filtering our drinking water. Boy, do we notice the chlorine taste when we drink unfiltered water.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Clever Branding and Tiring Advertising

Today we saw a billboard in Waseca MN that read:

Are you looking for a sign from God?
This may be it!

with an arrow at the bottom pointing to a nearby church.

Just about the same time, we found KDKK, Park Rapids MN, that had the slogan
"Music you thought you'd never hear again on the radio"

with the likes of Nat King Cole and other popular music in the style of his time. It was very pleasant listening.

Unfortunately, they also had advertising we never thought we'd hear on radio.

"Men, are you urinating too frequently? Are you waking up to urinate? Are you experiencing sexual dysfunction?"

After hearing this for the third time, we thought it was a sign from God that we should turn off the radio.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

If God created the world, why is it falling apart?

As we drove across eastern Montana, we marveled at the buttes and other rock formations. Most were sandstone in many layers, some brown, some gray, and some red. Their common features were the cracks, erosions, and the tallus at the bottom (the buildup of broken rock). When we were westbound last week, we saw a sign that said, "Watch for falling rock."

See "What is God?"

The green is not grass, the green is trash

As we were driving I-90 through Montana and my wife looked out over the brown landscape, she said, "I see a bit of green." I looked out and saw a green pop bottle and said, "The green is not grass, the green is trash!"

I hadn't really paid much attention before, but the amount of trash along the side of the highway was appalling. There must have been at least one bottle or can every two feet. I don't think I've seen as much trash along the more heavily traveled I-35. Either many Montanans are bigger slobs than some Minnesotans, or Minnesotans pick up trash more often.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Left-handers are not underhanded

I was originally going to email this to Jim Heffernan in response to his blog entry "Left-handed commentary..." but I thought it might be of more general interest.

I too am an overhanded left-hand writer, but I will not compromise and move my watch to my left wrist. I hope that doesn’t make me a Republican.

I think left-handed actions come from mirror copying. That is, we learn many actions by mimicking others. If they sit across from us then we might mirror their actions by using the “hand in the mirror”. If side-by-side then we use the same hand. I think the overhand writing comes because we need to write overhand because we turn the paper the same way everybody else does. With the paper turned counterclockwise, a left=handed writer would have to put the elbow in front of the chest instead of at the side. If we turned the paper clockwise, then it would be easier to write underhanded.

Ah, that’s why left-handed people tend to be liberals! They don’t do things underhanded.

Having said that, I’m not really left-handed. When people see me write, they often say, “Oh, you’re left-handed!” My stock reply is, “You’re making an assumption on flimsy evidence.” For the most part, I seem to do fine movement things with my left hand and large movement things with my right hand. I can’t hammer worth a darn with my left-hand. Side-by-side mimicking? Surprisingly, I draw lines using a ruler with the pen in my right hand. Is that because I have better fine control of the ruler with my left hand?

Temperature: It's all relative!

When we went skiing today at Bridger Bowl, many people were complaining that it was cold. I think it was in the low twenties; I hardly noticed. As of 5:00 p.m. this afternoon, the snow report said it was 20 at the base and 15 mid-mountain. Since the slopes are east-facing, I would imagine that the temperature dropped quite a bit as the sun sank over the mountains.

My gosh! Temperatures in the 20s at Spirit Mountain in Duluth would be a warm winter day.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Many people like classical music and don't even know it

This evening we went to the Home Page, a coffee and sandwich shop in Bozeman, for a light dinner. They had a classical music show on the speakers at a volume conducive to conversation.

What caught my attention was two different versions of "The Flight of the Bumblebee" by Rimsky-Korsakov. I said to my wife that has to have been in couple of cartoons in which someone was chased by a bee. That lead me to think about all the classical pieces that have been in movies, TV, and radio.

I complimented one of the baristas on the choice of music and we started mentioning other films and their themes. He mentioned Pachelbel's Canon in D as one but he didn't know the movie.

I pulled out my iPod and looked up a few terms on Google. One of the hits was Media: Theme Songs. Pachelbel's Canon was used for Ordinary People, a film based on Judith Guest's novel of the same name.

This same site had "The Flight of the Bumblebee" as the theme song of the radio show "The Green Hornet".

Many people will associate Rossini's "William Tell" with "The Lone Ranger" and Prokofiev's "The Love of Three Oranges" with "The FBI in Peace and War".

Elmer Fudd sings "Kill the Wabbit" to the turn of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries"

"2001: A Space Odyssey" brings to mind Richard Straus' "Also Sprach Zarathusta".

But few can link Ottorino Respighi's "The Appian Way" of the "The Pines of Rome" to two films that I'm sure it was used in. One was a western in which the Indians on their ponies come over a rise with a red sky behind them. The other was a World War II naval movie that was in black and white as the Navy had one setback after another. Then the Navy assembles a humongous fleet and as it sails forth the movie changes to Technicolor and "The Appian Way" plays triumphantly. Even a film professor friend didn't have an answer. I think I'll try "Ask Mr. Smithee" by the syndicated Alan Smithee film columnist at

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Our ski vacation is more than half over:(

The first two days at Bridger Bowl, a nonprofit community ski area, outside Bozeman , Montana, stretched our midwestern ski legs. And I didn't do any harm to my bum knee. See "Pain relieves pain?"

We spent almost of our time using one of the lower lifts. The drill was two runs, coffee, a few more runs, lunch, a few more runs, another break, a few more runs, and drinks. We ventured to a higher lift once, but for a variety of reasons we returned to the lower lift. My wife does prefer skiing the green (easy) runs. I timed a couple of these lower runs at about 15-20 minutes round trip, depending on the lift slow downs. At Spirit Mountain in Duluth a round trip is about seven to ten minutes. I also made a fast timed run, less than two-and-a-half minutes from top to bottom. We generally do about four to five minutes together. So, even though we aren't getting much in challenging skiing, we are getting in more than normal.

The weather has been nice, just below freezing, little wind, and a mix of clouds and sun. Yesterday was interesting in that I could see blue sky to my right as I rode up the lift, but it was never overhead. The mountains squeezed the clouds together as they moved through the valley. We also had different layers of clouds.

There was enough sun to burn my cheeks, despite a couple applications of sunscreen.

Today was a different story. When I checked the Bridger Bowl snow report at eight o'clock this morning there was already five inches of new snow, and none outside our hotel in the valley.

On our first run we skied mostly the narrow band of groomed snow. But as the morning wore on and the snow continued we had a few inches of fresh snow. Although we mostly use the extend one leg, retract the other method of turning, when we get in difficulty we try just pointing our feet (rotation). It doesn't work. We had to work more conscientiously to extend the outside leg and retract the inside leg. We got better at it as the snow deepened.

We stopped at a mid-mountain lodge for lunch and I decided that I would try the lift near it that had a couple of "blue runs", (more difficult or for moderately skilled skiers). My wife declined and chatted with some other people while I ventured out.

To my surprise, the lift hut had a big black diamond sign saying "Expert skiers only". I asked the lift operator about it and he said the slopes weren't for beginners. So, up I went. As I went up, the slope didn't look so bad, and the lesser skilled skiers seemed to be doing all right.

At the top I got a small indication of what was ahead. It was quite a drop from the end of the lift to the starting area. I went over to the edge and looked down. There was lots and lots of skied powder, maybe twelve inches deep. Hoo boy! Worse, I could make out the contours of the snow only a few feet away. How am I going to negotiate this? I did know that the start of the run was "black" (most difficult), but I didn't envision it as this difficult. Stupid midwestern skier of groomed runs.

I started to slide down diagonally and then stopped. Repeat. Repeat again. I have to turn sometime. I started a turn and immediately pitched forward and one ski came off. Boy, was the snow deep! The one ski was out of reach above me. I was lucky that it wasn't completely buried, the heel binding was showing. I don't know how long it took me to get my skis back on. I had to make sure that both my boots and skis were clear of snow.

I repeated my diagonal descent in the opposite direction. Again there came a point that I should make a turn. This time I made a single turn, pointed my skis slightly uphill and stopped. Catch my breath, repeat in the opposite direction. Eventually I could link two turns before stopping. Remember, I have narrow "bare" spots bordered by big mounds of snow. Zip on the troughs, crash into the mounds. Then I linked three. Sometimes I linked five turns.

But I was really getting out of breath. I was just below 7,000 feet and had my poor sunburned face covered with a Gator. This face wraparound combined with goggles does impede breathing. I pulled it off and stuck it in my pocket.

I was now in the Blue area but still could only link a few turns before stopping. Ah, there is the chalet. Which way do I go? On a diagonal to another path? Or straight down to a gap in the fence? Straight down looks easier. Straight on my face I went. I don't remember if a ski came off or not, but I was up and ready to go again in a short time.

I made it into the gap with a few turns, took off my skis, joined the others, and sat a long time drinking water and letting my legs rest. Hey, Arch! My knee was less of a problem than my thighs and calves.

Finally I was ready to go but we would call it quits for the day. Down we went on the Green (easier) run to the main chalet. I did make a point of skiing in the powder, but now it was only three to four inches deep.

Tomorrow will be sunny with no new snow. Should I check the grooming report tomorrow to see if that "experts only" run was groomed tonight?

Don't knock government, it is a stimulus itself

Business needs government, people need government, we all need government. We don't need to drown government in the bathtub and we don't need a know-it-all, do it-all government. We need a government that helps business and people achieve their legitimate goals.

From the earliest days of this country we needed town governments to stop criminals and build roads. The U.S. Constitution calls for the federal government to establish post offices and post roads. Business needed a postal system that will cover the country; it was much more efficient than sending every message by your own courier. Business needed the post roads to move goods beyond the local towns. Farmers needed good roads to get their produce to market.

The national economy took a quantum leap with the building of the railroads. They would have been delayed many years without various government concessions and subsidies.

Flying would be a nightmare without government provided airports and traffic control.

The Interstate highway system changed the economy in many ways. The downside is all the locally taxable property that disappeared. The upside is the greater easy of moving people and goods around the country. A business could send a truckload of goods to a specific destination without having to wait for a boxcar to be attached and detached to various trains.

The Defense Department financed some of the development of the Web through research grants to develop ARPANet. How many businesses have been created and fortunes made because of the Internet? Are you old enough to remember CompuServe and similar services that were only accessible to subscribers at costs that could accumulate very rapidly? I remember having to have at least three email accounts so that customers could reach me.

GPS was a military system that was used by individuals but only with distorted signals. President Clinton began relaxing these controls. This spawned "a $6 billion ecosystem of location-based companies." See Wired link below. And some accuse the Democrats of being business-unfriendly.

Have you used Google Earth? Would this be possible without all the government provided pictures?

Now President Obama is ready to open up government data that, if it wasn't kept buried in some obscure government office, was in some overwhelming form that made it hard for many people to understand. As the government moves to standard formats for much of its data, private companies will reformat it in forms that their customers can use. The formation of these companies or the new business for existing companies will be a stimulus in itself.

See "Wired-o-Nomics: Transparency as a Stimulus" for more.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Who has the right priorities?

Thomas Friedman is writing from New Delhi where he is attending a climate conference. Two young women asked him if he would like a ride in their car - an electric car augmented with solar panels. Read his column, "Yes, They Could, So They Did" for more, especially about how there are many people involved in unconventional thinking.

But what inspired this blog and its title is his quote about his ride through New Delhi:

"We head off down Panchsheel Marg, one of New Delhi’s main streets. The ladies want to show me something. The U.S. Embassy and the Chinese Embassy are both located on Panchsheel, directly across from each other. They asked me to check out the rooftops of each embassy. What do I notice? Let’s see ... The U.S. Embassy’s roof is loaded with antennae and listening gear. The Chinese Embassy’s roof is loaded with ... new Chinese-made solar hot-water heaters."

The 20th Century is often called the American Century. The 21st Century is going to be the Asian Century, not because the Asian powers have sophisticated military equipment, but because many Asians are working to solve everyday problems in sophisticated ways, which can often be quite simple.

See also, "Is the Asian Century coming?" and "More on a possible Asian Century"

I went to Wal-Mart today!

Here we sit in Bozeman MT ready to ski tomorrow as part of the annual Ski Hut trip. Tonight was the name tag party which was BYOB and BYOF, although there really was plenty of food.

So, we had to find somewhere to buy some drinks and food. From our hotel room we look out on a Wal-Mart and a huge parking lot. We checked at the front desk, and yes ,Wal-Mart sells beer and wine and can do so on Sunday.

What's the big deal about going to Wal-Mart? My regular readers know that I avoid going to big-box stores. I don't refuse to go to them, but if I can find a local store or restaurant, then I'll go there.

We walked out the front door of our hotel, through a gas station lot, down the street, and through the Wal-Mart parking lot. Inside was a humongous grocery store. We acknowledged the greeting of the big-box greeter and went on to get some of our usual super-fresh, super-nutritious stuff you can't get in a restaurant.

But I had no idea where the beer and wine was, and so I went back to the greeter. He graciously pointed out where they were. We added a six-pack of porter from a fifty-foot cooler with probably twice that many types of beer.

We pondered using the self-serve checkout but a neighboring cashier became free. She went on and on about having to put up with a smoker who just reeked of smoke even though he had no lit cigarette. We aided and abetted her with our sympathy.

The final indication of humanity in the midst of what many consider an impersonal monolith was the aforementioned greeter. He was busy helping some kids with a kid attraction by the door and thoroughly enjoying himself.

We probably will go back there a couple times this week. Not because Wal-Mart is a great place to shop, but because why should we drive all over town to learn where other shops are when we can just walk a few hundred feet?

See also "Why pick on McDonald's and Wal-Mart?"

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sometimes you have to lose money to make money

With the merger of Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines, some are concerned that northern Minnesota may lose air service to the Twin Cities. Delta is aware that if the cost of airfare to the Twin Cities, a major air hub, gets too high, then people will drive to the Twin Cities to catch a flight. If they do, they may choose other airlines than Delta.

See "Delta lands in Duluth to try to ease Northland concerns", Duluth News Tribune, 2009-02-12

The tickets for connecting flights may have to be loss leaders in order to get people on the longer flights.

Government and industry are filled with examples of loss leaders creating greater gains and of cutting out "losing" activities that actually lose profitable activities. Think Circuit City laying off high-paid clerks. How many people stopped going to Circuit City because they couldn't find knowledgeable clerks?

Your very own stimulus package

Promise to give as many people as you can one dollar for every member of Congress who read the entire 1500-plus pages of the stimulus bill. In turn they have to pay you one dollar for every member of congress who did not read the entire stimulus bill. You should come out well ahead.

Far-fetched? Recall that someone challenged members of Congress to read the entire original Patriot Act. Only one member took up the challenge, read the entire bill, and voted no.

Maybe we need a Constitutional amendment that Congress shall pass no bill that is longer than the original Constitution. Maybe Congress will pass fewer bills and many more that will actually work as intended.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A navy joke

After my umpteenth sneeze yesterday, I thought up this little joke. My wife thought it was lame, but when I told it to a Navy veteran today, he burst out with a laugh.

If a sailor retires and becomes a jerk, is he a post naval drip?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Credit card number to be needed to call 911

If we follow some people's statements and beliefs, then a logical conclusion is that anybody who calls 911 should be prepared to pay for the "privilege". The statement that triggered this bizarre thought was a quote by a Minnesota state senator known for his "hard-nosed" approach to taxes and spending:

"'Who says we're any better keeping people's money than they are?' asked Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna."
"It's too easy to change state Constitution, legislators say", Star Tribune, 2009-02-10

So, if people know best how to spend their money, then all roads should be toll roads. After all, people will know best which roads are most cost-effective for their needs. And all 911 calls should be toll calls. After all, people will know whether it is worth the cost to call for an emergency response.

Unfortunately, often the same people who think that the people know best how to spend their money are the ones who think we should support any war the president decides should be waged. Unfortunately again, these people don't want to pay for these wars by taxing the people now.

Oh well, since when have people been consistent in their beliefs and their actions.

See also
Who's to blame for high taxes?
The paradoxes of tax cuts
Straight talk on taxes

Monday, February 09, 2009

More on government employee pay

Today's Star Tribune had an item in a sidebar of the Business section on a lawyer moving from a corporate job to private practice.

He wanted to stop managing lawyers in court and be in court himself. Prior to his corporate job he was in the state attorney's office, "where the top pay for a lawyer was $116,000, about what new associates make in the Twin Cities' largest law firms."

I don't know why so many can justify stratospheric salaries for the high level executives, but begrudge the current pay of those on the factory floor or in state and local government.

Newspapers need to be written by mathematicians

This morning's Duluth News Tribune had an editorial on hiring an outside firm to negotiate contracts, "Duluth can tap expert to negotiate 'modern' contracts"

Chuck Frederick quoted from Forbes that state and local government employees average $25.30 an hour while private sector employees average $19 an hour.
See "Gilt-Edged Pensions".

The Forbes article makes a better case than this that many public employees may be grossly overpaid, but using the above hourly wage statistic is bad mathematics. It is like comparing a police officer's pay to a mall security guard's pay. There is a vast difference in expectation and training. It is like comparing the pay of manufacturing company employees to the pay of retail company employees. There is a big difference in skills and training.

What should be considered is the pay of similar jobs, not all jobs in one group vs. all jobs in another group. Governments have a higher percentage of police officers, firefighters, heavy equipment operators, and judges than the rest of society. Governments have a lower percentage of servers and retail clerks.

I think every newspaper writer should have a copy of John Allen Paulos' "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper" on his or her desk.

See also "Wouldn't you think the Washington Post would know infinitely better?"

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Capitalism or managerialism?

Alyce Lomax of the Motley Fool wrote "Are You a Real Shareholder?" available through Yahoo Finance.

Among the points she raises are, are you a trader in only for short-term gain, are you a "dumb" shareholder who just likes the company for reasons other than long-term growth of your money, or are you a buy-and-hold investor who pays no attention, not even voting your proxies.

All these shareholders permit management to control the company, often against the long-term interests of the shareholders. She calls this management culture.

This is a phrase that I've been looking for for a long time. Many argue that we have free markets and capitalism, but I have long thought that when it comes to large corporations we have neither because it is management that decides many things, irrespective of markets or the shareholders. "Management culture" is a great phrase to define what we really have.

How else do you explain the granting of shares to top management and board members? Is it to align their interests with those of shareholders or is it to line their own pockets? Consider as management and board members grant themselves shares at bargain basement prices, they are diluting the value of shares bought on the open market and diluting the votes of those shareholders. One could say they are taking over the company by stealth.

Lomax suggests "But we can pay attention, and we can ask questions if we see something that doesn't support the long-term success of the company. We can vote our yearly proxy statements, and we can attend shareholder meetings. And if we have to, we can make statements by selling our stock."

My own personal credo is to vote against management if I feel they are paying themselves and the board unfairly, if board members own fewer shares than I do (they often do in some mutual fund companies), or if I feel they are proposing something that is more in their interests than mine.

Whether its politics or corporations, we can have no complaint if we don't vote.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Pain relieves pain?

Over two weeks ago I did something to my knee to make walking painful. I took ibuprofen and applied a cold pack frequently. I avoided walking or even sitting for a long time. The pain slowly got less but I still didn't want to ski on it.

But, we have hotel reservations for a ski trip in a few weeks. If I don't ski the week before we leave, there is no point in skiing all day without being in shape.

When I saw a massage flyer at the SMDC Fitness Center, I decided I should give that a try, especially when the pain diagram included knee pain. I made an appointment on Sunday for yesterday.

Boy oh boy! Did Arch Salyards give my knee a workout. He kneaded and he rubbed and we chatted. I didn't know I had so many sore spots. But as he worked, the sore spots weren't so sore. He said I shouldn't ski today but I could on Saturday and that I should be in shape to ski in Montana.

He recommended that I alternate between hot and cold packs, which I did yesterday and am continuing today. My knee slowly felt better.

However, this morning when I woke up I had a really sore spot above my knee that I didn't have before. It must have been from the pressure on a spot that didn't need it. I do think it will go away.

Being a glutton for punishment, I did schedule a follow-up session for next week. That will really be the go-no go day.

My final thought is if you have muscle pain that is not going away with ibuprofen and hot or cold packs, see a massage therapist as soon as you can. It's worth it, especially if the pain is distracting or limiting your activities.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Can Cellphone Industry Keep Growing?

This is the title of an article in the New York Times on 2009-02-03. See

The main question is that has the explosive growth of cell phones slowed for other reasons than the recession, namely saturation of the market. Does everyone who wants a cell phone have one?

We might look to the popularity of CB radios in the late 70s as an example. It seemed everyone who wanted one had one, especially those who did a lot of driving. CB stores seemed to be everywhere. Then the chatter on them became overwhelming. It was hard to get a road report because so many people were greeting their friends. I put mine in the closet then.

The CB market got a small boost when the 40-channels models came out, but I rarely see CB antennas on anything but over-the-road trucks.

Radio Shack still sells CB radios ranging in price from $28 to $190, but most of them are available on the web only. Radio Shack now has far more shelf space devoted to cell phones.

Cell phones can't communicate with all those around you, but they certainly make getting emergency help more reliable, at least on a major highway.

Smart phones, iPhones and Blackberries, can keep sales up for a while, but at what point will everybody who wants one at the asking price have one.

I think the only way to sell more smart phones is to open up the networks to all smartphones. I know I didn't get an iPhone because I would have had to change networks. And now that I have an iPod touch, I'm not going to buy something that is not compatible with it. I think I will stick with my 2+ year old Samsung.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Am I important or is a third party working harder?

I just had a personal call, not a robo-call, from Dean Barkley, the 2008 Minnesota Independence Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. He was asking for donations to the party.

I told him that I had been thinking about sending email to the party about having gimmicks in its party platform, namely instant run-off voting and unicameral legislature. He said he would pass my thoughts on.

I suggested that a key word to use was "appropriateness"; for example, the question is not that taxes are too high or too low, but are they appropriate for what we as a society need done. He said that he was a believer in infrastructure and that he thinks a bit before driving across a bridge.

What I didn't tell him that I had been the "Party of One" columnist for the Weekly Reader. For years I have sometimes donated to candidates I particularly liked, but I can't remember when I last contributed to a party. Maybe it was 1981 when my term ended as a precinct finance chair for the Republican Party in Plymouth MN. I had wanted John Anderson as the Republican candidate in 1980 and did contribute to his independent campaign. Too bad people threw their votes away voting for the "major" party candidates:)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Wouldn't you think the Washington Post would know infinitely better?

Especially the Science editor!

In an article about the Hubble Space Telescope, they write "but there are an almost infinite number of other possibilities." ("What Do You Want to See", 2009-02-02)

This is as bad as the advertiser who touts that a product has an endless number of uses.

Any scientist should know that you can never reach "almost infinity". Take any really, really large number, double it. You still are not close to infinity. Square it, you still are not close to infinity. Raise it to a power of itself. You still are not close to infinity.

Now bad or incorrect word usage, that is almost endless!