Monday, March 30, 2009

Capsule explanation of scientist-creationist conflict

Juli Berwald, a science textbook writer, recently testified in favor of science at the Texas State Board of Education hearings science education standards.

In a Wired blog she encapsulated the conflict into scientists want to figure out how without worrying about why and creationists want to figure out why without worrying about how.

See "Reporting From the Front Lines of the Texas Evolution Debate".

Netting phishers

I received an email today that claimed my Bank of America card had been deactivated. Strange, I don't have a Bank of America card.

I didn't open the email but I looked at its source. Sure enough, a look-alike URL was used for the link to "verify" my data.

Often I don't bother with reporting fraud to companies that I don't do business with. On the other hand, the more of us who report fraud, the tougher it will get for the bad guys.

I had checked Bank of America's web site once before but hadn't found any fraud report link. I checked today, started with "Contact us", and a couple of pages later found a "Report Fraud" item. It said that fraudulent email should be forwarded to I did so and deleted the fraudulent email.

The most active tracker of fraudulent email that I know is PayPal. If you get suspicious email supposedly from PayPal, forward it to

It may take you only a few minutes to report fraud, but you may save many other people years of grief.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Terrorism thrives where law doesn't exist

President George Bush sent many off to create democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he neglected to do much about the lack of democracy in Pakistan. With the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, many Pakistanis are hoping that the rule of law will return to Pakistan. See "Reinstated, Chief Justice Bears Hopes of Pakistan", New York Times, 2009-03-29

Others are not so optimistic. Corruption is rampant in Pakistan and the ability or even willingness of the top to reign corruption in is almost non-existent. Reporters have been killed, promises have been made to find the killers, and nothing is done. See"Our Lawless Land", Dawn, a Pakistani English Language newspaper, 2009-03-29.

Fast service on unblocking

This morning when I edited this blog, I found that it was no longer blocked. I didn't expect to see any results until Monday.

I think the cause might have been that I used a back reference on a link to a newspaper. I forget what the actual coding is but I tacked on my blog address as the reference for the link. I thought I had done it at least twice, but I could only find one instance, which I removed.

The site might have been blocked only in that I had to take an extra step to do anything. I had to retype one of those squiggly sets of letters. On the first occurrence it took three tries to get it right; the letters were really mashed together.

The next Chinese Revolution has begun

It may be peaceful; it may be violent.

If the authorities take meaningful and compassionate action on the deaths of children from tainted milk, earthquakes, and other causes related to lack of oversight, the next revolution will be under way peacefully. If the authorities take harsh and repressive actions on the grieving parents, the next revolution may become violent. Just look at the French and Russian Revolutions against distant and uncaring ruling classes.

See "Grieving Parents Gain Clout in China", Washington Post, 2009-03-27

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Warning: this blog may be locked

Today I received a message from that my blog may be blocked because it may be a spam generator. I can't verify for sure that the message itself is not spam. Google has no guaranteed way of reaching a real person. Its standard response is to go to Help Topics or the Help Forums.

I did search the Help Forums and found dozens of not hundreds of complaints about this message. Few of the complaints are answered in any meaningful way.

I'm still not sure if I should click on the link in the message. Maybe I'll cut and past it and give it a try. Right now supper calls.

I'm a busker, I think

Today I auditioned with the Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission for a busker spot during the Gallery Hop on April 18. A busker is a street entertainer who sings, plays, dances, or does other performance activities. See BUSKER CENTRAL - Street Performers and Buskers Reference Site.

I was among the first five to audition. Before my turn came I had forgotten some of the words to "Arirang", a Korean song I've sung many times. I did manage to get through "Die Gedanken Sind Frei" and "Santa Lucia". I don't know how much applause I got. The stage was brightly lit and the seats were in the dark, but just as I finished, somebody from the commission was showing a sign in the back, "TIME".

Before the second hour was up they said that all of us would have an assigned spot. By the time it was all over, 31 groups had performed. They said they would split the assignments into four hour shifts.

I was the only a capella singer; other singers accompanied themselves with guitars or other instruments. Some were little bands all by themselves; one performer used a harmonica, a suitcase drum, a banjo, and a jug. There was a belly dancer and group of hoop dancers.

The nicest things were when one performer stopped to shake my hand as he left and another sat and chatted with me a bit impressed that I sang unaccompanied. This is a long way for the guy who was always off-key in choral groups. See "Men Can Sing".

So, I have to get busy memorizing more songs and maybe drag along my notebook of songs, if nothing more than for a quick glance to refresh my memory. I'll probably have to bring lots of cough drops, too.

Now I'm sitting on pins and needles waiting official confirmation.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Thanks to my five readers, or is it 4, or 6, or 8?

How do I know how many people are reading this blog?

I have three ways. If you pull up the blog, Google AdSense counts you. If you have set up a feed for the blog, then Google's FeedBurner counts you. In the latter case, I'm not sure if you've read the full text or just glanced at the headlines. If you've read the full text, you may be counted in the first group.

Google AdSense tells me there are 1-5 users per day. I have no idea if that is one person visiting multiple times or several people visiting once each. Google FeedBurner tells me there are 4-7 users per day. It tells me which pages these users have viewed or clicked, and I'm not sure what the difference is.

FeedBurner also tells me what feeds or browsers people are using. I'm not sure how to interpret the browser use. The feeds had been consistently three for Google FeedFetcher, one for LargeSmall Crawler, and one or two others whose names I haven't been noting. About every three days somebody from Japan checks in with Firefox Live Bookmarks.

Last night none of you who use a feed viewed or clicked the blog because I had nothing that was new to you. I do hope I can write something interesting everyday, but I'll try to make sure I do so at least every other day. Sometimes it will be every three or four days.

I only know two readers for sure, a husband and wife one of which is a locally known writer, far better than I.

If you know me, I hope you can drop me a line or speak to me. I'd like to know what you think of this blog.

Meanwhile, I thank each and every one of you who read this blog. It beats writing into a diary which sits on a bookshelf.

Explain everything? Are you sure?

Somebody made the comment the other day that my columns assume my readers know certain things. I'm not sure if it was favorable or not because we didn't take time to discuss it.

If favorable, the person probably meant that I assume my readers have a reasonably broad understanding of current events: political, scientific, and cultural. If it wasn't favorable, I can't do much about it without tripling the number of words in an article and leaving many people bored.

I remember when I was sysop of the Genealogy RoundTable on GEnie, a CompuServe competitor, one user said I should explain everything about using GEnie. Do I have to tell people how to sign-on, do I have to explain every command (including those which have explanations given by typing the "question mark" key), do I have explain how to hit space twice to separate paragraphs, do I have to explain turning off the "caps lock" key so not to SHOUT AT EVERYBODY?

Is this getting into efficiency? Making sure some have complete understanding at the cost of driving others away?

Is "efficiency" efficient?

Or is "efficiency" a deficient and insufficient idea?

"Efficiency" is one of the slogan words of today, bandied about by left and right without any real thought about what it really means and what the consequences will be of gaining "efficiencies" in government and business?

On the right, it often means cutting costs to lower taxes without any considerations of what costs will be imposed elsewhere. All over it means cutting costs in business and government with any thought about the long-term consequences. In almost all cases it means doing more with fewer people. Efficiency often means lowest total cost, but at what cost.

Is it efficient for snow plows to go as fast as is safe and throw snow on the sidewalks, guaranteeing that many will not make any effort to clear their sidewalks of the extra, denser snow? Or is it more efficient to go slowly so that more people will clear their sidewalks of the natural snow?

Is the efficient employee the one who brusquely handles hundreds of customers a day who never return? Or is the efficient employee the one who generates repeat business by treating each customer as the only customer? Think Circuit City who laid off its high-paid clerks.

Is it more efficient for postal clerks to serve a maximum number of people or is it more efficient for them to treat each customer as if they are the only customer. At the post offices I visit, postal clerks almost always ask, "Anything else?" Generally, people will say no, but who knows who will say, "Yes, I would like some of the (new commemorative) stamps."

Suppose a call center rates each employee rated on number of calls per day, expecting them to be on phone constantly. What is cost in people on hold who wind up taking business elsewhere. The queuing theory that I remember said 85% capacity is generally most efficient. Think of full, stalled highways.

Whenever we consider getting "efficiencies" from some system, we should ask what will be the hidden costs to an organization, customers, or society. I guarantee that in most cases these costs will "bite" us later, resulting in higher costs than we would have had in the first place.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Genes or environment - chicken or egg?

Two neuroscientists wrote an interesting article for the New York Times, "Mugged By Our Genes", 2009-03-24

They explore the relationship between genes and life experiences, noting some studies of identical twins and fraternal twins. The interesting comparison is that one identical twin may develop a certain destructive behaviour, such as alcoholism, and the other will develop a different behaviour that can lead to harm.

"[The] 'genes versus environment' debate is asking the wrong question. ... The evidence points to something more complex: genetic predispositions interact with circumstances to produce unique individuals."

Why some politicians can't always deliver on promises

I had to craft the headline carefully. I didn't want to imply that all politicians never fulfill their promises. I didn't want to imply that some politicians always fulfill all of their promises. Well, maybe some do because they make very few promises or they make such generalized promises that it is hard to say that the promise was not fulfilled.

Back to the topic. For the answer see "Secrets of a Pollster" by Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 2009-03-24. The relevant quote is

"[Politicians] never come out of the box and deliver the scale of progress and change they promise — not because they are cynical, but because events conspire against them and they encounter competing power centers. What distinguishes the best leaders, he says, is that they learn from their crashes, adjust, persist and succeed."

Few issues are just between good guys and bad guys

A favorite whipping boy of the current economic problems is A.I.G., especially those receiving large bonuses. One of the bonus recipients who was not involved in the group that brought the company down says he earned his bonus for his straight-forward and profitable work for the company. He sent a resignation letter to Edward M. Liddy, CEO of A.I.G. and to the New York Times. For the full letter, see "Dear A.I.G., I Quit!"

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Seek and ye shall find, maybe

Art Johnston, a critic of the Duluth School District Red Plan, a major capital investment, wrote a lengthy critique of the Red Plan in the March 19, 2009, Reader Weekly. In it, he wrote that board member Nancy Nilsen said, "The existing buildings have flat roofs and we have to get rid of buildings, like Central, with flat roofs because they always leak."

If she actually said this, it would be a great opening for an ornery person like me. I had visions of taking a picture of downtown Duluth showing all the flat roofs, submitting it to the Reader Weekly, and including a caption about the Ruby Plan to replace all the buildings with flat roofs.

My orneriness is sometimes tempered by a bit of caution. I should check this quote out.

The article had no email address for Art Johnston, and so I asked a friend who knows him for his email address. My friend didn't give it to me but promised to forward my email to Art Johnston.

I found Nancy Nilsen's email address on the School District site and sent her the purported quote.

I haven't heard from Art Johnston yet, but Nancy Nilsen called me this evening. She had not seen the article and said she would have to get a copy of the Reader. She said she had made a remark about a leaky roof at one school and said it had been fixed. She also said that she owns buildings with flat roofs.

I sought but I'm not sure I found. Yes, I did find, but I knew what I found already. There are a lot of very nice people who can hold strongly opposing views, each view supported both by strong facts and by weak assumptions. I also know I would rather stay out of the middle.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Technology decreases patience

Over a hundred years ago it was considered miraculous that people could go over 35 mph. Instead of taking a month or two to cross the continent, it could be done in a week thanks to transcontinental railroad.

Now we don't have the patience to take the train. We would rather fly and be on the other coast on the same day.

We don't have the patience to take the bus in our own cities. We would rather hop in our cars and be there in "no time".

I mused on this when I accessed the web from our cabin. In Duluth we have a nominal 1500 kbps with DSL and 28 kbps at the cabin (actually more like 24). It took three minutes to load a newspaper page. Part of the problem is that the designers of the page wrote it for those with higher speed connections. Somewhere I published this as Magree's law, but I can't locate it at the moment.

Although I would like to read a lot online while at the cabin, like the local papers, the relative slow speed tries my patience.

Many things we take for granted are far faster than our greatgreatgrandparents experienced. We flip a switch and have light; no lighting candles or kerosene lamps. Some things we don't even do with any effort. Our heat or air conditioning comes on automatically. No lighting a fire or waving a fan.

I goofed!

I'm perfect; I never maik misteaks!

Well, I do and I did a minor whopper. If you read more than my feed, you'll see a completely different profile on the right. What's the Irregular Blog have to do with Chester Creek neighborhood? Other than I live in the Chester Creek neighborhood?

I recently started a blog, "Chester Creek Neighbors". I created a profile that I thought would be limited to the new blog. Nope! It's for all the blogs under my Google account.

It will be a few days before I get around to fixing it. I have ways!

Now if I can only find the text for my profile for this blog.

Friday, March 20, 2009

We stop skiing and it snows!!

On Wednesday we decided we had enough skiing for the season, cleaned out our locker at Spirit Mt., and dropped our skis off at Ski Hut for waxing and sharpening for next season.

Today we drove to our cabin to cut more wood. The forecast was for a high in the 30s and 40s and light snow. The closer we got to Brimson, the more it snowed. When we arrived there was already a half-inch of new snow ground. And it snowed and it snowed. The temperature was about 28.

I selected a tree to cut and clipped brush around it. My hands were really getting cold as I did the last clump.

My wife had a nice fire going by then and I warmed up quickly. Meanwhile the snow was falling thicker and thicker. I was antsy and wanted to get back out, but I didn't want to get soaked.

MPR gave another weather report like I started out with. This wasn't for the Twin Cities but for the Duluth area. Here in Brimson it was snowing harder than ever. I dashed off a webmail to MPR, but it went into the maw of the bureaucracy.

Along about cocktail hour I decided I should go cut my tree for the day. I just had to get one down. With two inches accumulation it had stopped snowing. I did a six-incher and cut it into rounds. Before I gathered them up I shoveled a path to the outhouse and two the woodshed. I got out the toboggan and hauled them to a cutting stump. Then my wife came out and asked if she could help! Oh, well, I don't help much with the cooking and many other things. By six o'clock I felt satisfied that I had done all I could for the day.

Tomorrow is splitting day and maybe I'll get another tree down.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Contracts and bonuses

I don't understand what the big fuss over the United Autoworkers negotiated Job Bank is all about. Isn't it a retention bonus? Isn't a "contract a contract"?

Or is there one set of standards for highly-paid white-collar workers and another for highly-paid but not so highly-paid blue-collar workers?

Global warming and borders

The Swiss and Italians may be changing their borders slightly. Il Messaggero reported on March 18 that global warming is causing glaciers to retreat - "Erosione ghiacciai: Italia e Svizera verso la revisione dei confini"

The border problem is that it is defined by treaty as the demarcation of the watersheds. As the glaciers change so changes the flow of melt water to either side.

I've often said that borders are determined by armies rather than cultural or economic interests. Franco Narducci, who presented a draft law to the Italian Parliament, said, "Once armies determined borders; now experts determine borders." - my translation

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I'm a baritone...

My tones are bare of any musical qualities.

This was triggered after choir practice when two musicians far, far better than I am (and calling me a musician is generous) were discussing forming a jazz group. One asked the other if he was a tenor. The second replied that he was more a baritone.

My playing with words works far better than my playing with notes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Is every earned dollar hard-earned? A missing post

Fiddling around with Blogger, I discovered that I had three posts that were never published. Two were drafts that somehow had been superseded by articles. A third draft had not been published.

I reviewed the third and found that it was still timely: "Is every earned dollar hard-earned?" I published it and then was surprised that it was not posted as the most recent. It was posted with the same date as I first wrote it. If you're interested in reading it, please click quoted title earlier in this paragraph.

The House of Cards came tumbling down

The newspapers and the blogosphere are filled with commentary pointing blame for the credit crunch all over the place - Federal government forcing banks to loan to high-risk people, greedy investment bankers who gave themselves big bonuses for just moving money around, house buyers signing for loans they couldn't pay in the end, the media, the conservatives, the liberals, and...

I think that, yes, blame can be spread far and wide, but all of these malefactors had the same basic premise: loaned money can be bought and sold.

The beginning premise sounds simple. A local bank lends money to someone for some purpose. At a certain point, the bank has no more money to lend except for what dribbles back in as loan payments. To raise more money, the bank sells its loans to a larger entity. But the larger entity can only do this far so long. In order to buy more loans, it has to raise more money. So it sells its loan to a larger entity. Where does it end?

If house prices keep going up, it never ends. But prices will not keep going up. Either everyone who wants a house has one, or prices go so high that fewer people are willing to buy houses. So, prices go down, sometimes very rapidly.

Sometimes prices drop so rapidly that people would rather stop paying their loans than pay more than their house is worth. Of course, if they walk away from one house, they will have a hard time buying a house of much less worth. That further reduces the number of qualified buyers further reducing the prices of houses.

Tulips, Florida real estate, houses, when will they ever learn?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Media bias or media balance

This morning's Duluth News Tribune had yet another rant from a global warming denier: "Global warming a prime example of junk science". He then goes on to use isolated facts and hearsay assumptions to berate those who have made numerous scientific observations. I wonder why the DNT even gave space to this letter.

Of course, to show they are not biased, that they give "both sides" a hearing.

Actually, if they want to give "both sides" a hearing, then they should give equal weight to the global warming alarmists who act as if the world is doomed if we don't take draconian measures yesterday.

I would put giving global warming deniers in the same category as flat earth believers. After all, all those pictures of the moon were staged, right?

The media bias charge does come from two extremes: from those in lock step with "Republican" "principles" and from those who believe all corporations are evil.

"The media", whatever that monolithic entity is, does have the job of addressing truth to power. Many on the so-called right were up in arms about criticism of President Bush, but now they are strangely silent about criticism of President Obama. Or even about reporting of the "right's" criticism of Obama. Interestingly, most of the reasoned criticism of Obama is coming from columnists who gave supportive views of Obama during the presidential campaign.

Some have made an "objective" study to prove media bias. They rate stories as to being favorable to "conservatives" or to "liberals", often finding there are more "liberal" stories than "conservative". This is a false dichotomy, assuming that both groups have equally legitimate views and interests.

First, let's admit that there are both "kooky conservatives" and "loony liberals", people whose views are not shared by many others. Now is it possible that the number of pragmatists with honest differences of opinion might be larger in one group than in the other? Currently it is "liberals" who have more pragmatists than the "conservatives". In another era, the balance may shift the other way.

Until we give more balance to the pragmatists, we will have biased media.

Why plumbers aren't on time

One of our society's standing jokes is that plumbers never come when they promised. This weekend we got a lesson on why.

About two weeks ago we would briefly hear a noise now and then. One time we thought it was a diesel locomotive horn. Others we thought somebody was running something in the neighborhood.

Last week we were sure that the noise was in our house, probably in the furnace. Of course, if we went downstairs and listened by the furnace when it went on, then there was no noise. I did hear it enough to believe it was a fan on the furnace.

Yesterday evening, the noise occurred several times each time the furnace came on. I was able to stand by the furnace and determine that it was the exhaust fan. The noise sounds like a bad bearing. The exhaust fan is probably needed to draw fresh air into the furnace; both the intake and exhaust pipes are out the side of the house rather than in openings around doors and up the chimney.

We called the plumber's office and left a message.

We turned the thermostat all the way down, lit a fire in the fireplace, and put an electric heater near the thermostat to fool the furnace into not coming on. My wife got up several times in the night to put more wood on the fire, bless her. Without a special trip to the cabin, we now have no more wood for this season.

I talked to the plumber several minutes ago and someone will come by later this morning. Of course, the noise won't be there when a plumber comes.

Our little emergency means that the plumber can't go to somebody else's house for some routine job. Of course, we don't know how many other emergencies the plumber might have, like a leaky pipe spraying water all over the basement.

Meanwhile, my wife will do some baking to provide a bit more heat.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Premonitions revisited and other woodsman stuff

Well, well, I did make a prediction that came true. It did snow within two weeks in Duluth. It snowed on Tuesday and into Wednesday but not as much as the forecasts predicted.

And I had a premonition about something bad happening with the big tree I cut down. What was bad was some of the wood. It was soft or riddled with bug trails. We did keep a lot of the wood, but my chopping stump is surrounded by some very crumbly stuff; any drier and it would be powder.

One somewhat useless piece had a big hole in it and a squirrel nest in the hole. The piece must have been about twenty feet up. The material inside was grass interspersed with bright yellow pieces of fluff. The extra fluff was insulation purloined from under the floor of our cabin. We wonder how many squirrels are dying of silicosis.

One premonition I should have had was that I didn't prep my chain saw properly. I trimmed some protuding pieces on a couple of rounds before splitting them. As I finished I saw a cord dangling from the saw. What's this? It was the cord for the oil cap. I had not tightened it properly after adding bar oil. There was also a puddle of oil at my feet.

I added more oil and carefully secured the cap. I successfully cut down two smaller trees, both falling in the direction I wanted. I also cut them into rounds and split them without anything untoward happening but a sore back from bending over.

One advantage to cutting a tree up in the winter is that it rests on snow for almost its entire length. The saw rarely binds and one doesn't try to cut the dirt and stones underneath.

We may now have enough wood for three weeks next winter. Only ten to twelve weeks to go.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Too many notes!

I was going to make a note of our latest bottle of wine on my iPod for future reference. But why? I have so many notes I can't find them all. Slips of paper. Bound books. Steno books. Full size spiral notebooks. Files all over my computer.

I keep adding ideas for blogs or things to do, and the list gets bigger and bigger. I really have to have the attitude of a 92-year-old man mentioned on a recent "To the Best of Our Knowledge" podcast. He was sitting next to a woman the same age who lamented that she was ready to pack it in. He looked at her in shock and exclaimed "I plan to live to 142!"

I can write ideas for blogs faster than I can write the blogs themselves. Just below this draft in my March notes files are

Performance and efficiency as code words for less taxes
Should we save airline jobs? (As part of the whole ethos of saving jobs when the work has changed)
The model of economic growth has broken based on Thomas Friedman's "The Inflection is Near?"

What would I have written about the bottle of wine? Even though it was an organic, sulfite-free wine, it still gave my wife a headache later. It was a reasonable table wine, smooth and medium bodied. What was the name? I'd have to pull the bottle out of recycling. I guess we'll keep buying the organic, sulfite-free wine that doesn't give my wife a headache. Aging does get us in a rut. Wine does too.

Meanwhile I have another short blog on why I had difficulty sleeping last night.

Worrying about the past

I've been slowly reading a library discard, "Ten Crises in Civilization" by Stanton A. Coblentz. It really should be "... in Western Civilization" because Asia had many crises such as Mongol invasions.

Currently I am finishing the chapter on the Dutch revolt against King Philip of Spain in the 1500s. King Philip was almost single-handedly promoting the Inquisition against any hint of Protestantism or any other signs of independence in the Netherlands. His forces were killing machines, executing people by the dozens or annihilating large portions of towns - men, women, and children.

I was reading this in bed and I couldn't relax when I turned the lights out. The enormity of it kept rolling around in my head.

I drew two interesting conclusions from it when I was more lucid.

Many would say that the suppression was religiously inspired. Wasn't it more a brutal exercise of power? King Philip may have accepted visits from Dutch authorities asking him to honor ancient privileges, but he would turn around and tax more heavily or issue a more restrictive decree.

The other conclusion was the irony of the Dutch gaining freedom from a foreign empire. In the next centuries, they created their own empire: New Amsterdam, South America, South Africa, India, Indonesia, and more.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What is performance and how do you measure it?

President Obama has added his voice to those of a long list of politicians calling for increased performance in schools. They want to pay teachers for performance, but do they really know what it is?

Is it teaching students to be able to recite all the prepositions in the English language in alphabetical order? To get 100 percent of the spelling words? To correctly prove geometric theorems? To know the names of all the presidents in historical order?

I was required to do all these in school but I couldn't do any of them to school standards today at age 70. Gosh, just when was Millard Fillmore president? And I'm not even sure if it was Fillmore or Filmore.

What I did get from many teachers was a love of learning and expectations for my continued learning. I remember little of the trigonometry and solid geometry that Mr. Rush taught, but I do remember his saying often, "When you go to Case..." meaning Case Institute of Technology. At least six of us did. I remember little of the chemistry that Mr. Raymond taught, but his demonstrations and assistance made the subject interesting. I hated memorizing speeches from Shakespeare, but Miss Palmer did instill a lifelong interest in reading Shakespeare.

Would these teachers have succeeded with me if my family hadn't also had expectations of me as well as providing examples? I was expected to do well in school. I was shown by example that reading was important. We didn't have many books but we subscribed to two daily newspapers and some weekly or monthly magazines.

What about kids who don't have those expectations? Can schools successfully make up for it in large classes? Maybe, maybe not.

A popular icon of successful teaching is Jaime Escalante of "Stand and Deliver" fame. Even he admits that the movie was a stretch, but the truth is that he did inspire many to go on beyond what many expected.

See "Jaime Escalante", The Futures Channel and "Stand and Deliver Revisited: The untold story behind the rise -- and shameful fall -- of Jaime Escalante, America's master math teacher", Reason, July 2002

His achievement took far longer than the movie depicted, and he had more obstacles than just the testing bureaucracy. One obstacle was the favorite whipping boy of the so-called conservatives: teachers unions. Escalante's union did not like him having classes of more than 50. But he also had obstacles from administrators. His first principal was very supportive but later administrators were not, including those who valued sports more than academics. In fact, whenever the school administration became hostile, the program declined.

Another example of bucking a hostile administration is Frank McCourt, author of "Angela's Ashes" and "Teacher Man". As I remember the latter book, he was more interested in telling stories and getting students to tell stories than following the syllabus. He was constantly called on the carpet for not teaching according the rules. However, how many of his students remember the administrators and how many remember him? He mentions how often he meets former students in his book tours in

A good summary of his teaching was written in Publishers Weekly

McCourt throws down the gauntlet on education, asserting that teaching is more than achieving high test scores. It's about educating, about forming intellects, about getting people to think....should be mandatory reading for every teacher in America. And it wouldn't hurt some politicians to read it, too.


We all have gimmicks for "improving" education: charter schools, pay for performance, longer school hours, bigger schools, smaller schools, and on and on. My own gimmick is to pay teachers like insurance agents. The teachers should get a cut of the income taxes that former students pay.

In the end, the best things we can do is to honor our teachers rather than blame them and to provide the resources they need rather than than cutting budgets.

Finally, if you can read this, thank a teacher.

P.S. I also posted this to

Co-operation is...

An aye for an aye and a truth for a truth.

I had hoped that this phrase was a Magree original, but there are at least two prior occurrences on the web.

See also

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A computer is not a brochure

I am reading a company's annual report online in lieu of having my mailbox stuffed and my desk piled up with lots of brochures and booklets.

It makes a hard read because the online version is exactly as how it would appear on paper. It has two columns that are each longer than my screen. So, I have to scroll down and then back up to read any given page.

One software company has made it easier to read many newspaper pages. By putting its bookmark in the bookmark bar of your browser, you can quickly get a page that you can read continuously. See

Unfortunately, it doesn't work on PDF files such as annual reports.

This is another case of many where people apply the old paper methods to computers. Think of your bank that limits access to your account while they balance their books every evening, just when you want to make that crucial transaction. Computer-based financial systems have had audit trails for over forty years. Your bank could let you make the transaction, save it until the books are balanced, and then apply it.

Let's not knock weather forecasters

"Blizzard bears down, a storm with heavy snow and high winds is expected to hit the Northland this afternoon" Headline, Duluth News Tribune, 2009-03-10

"Snow will persist this evening, but totals far less then expected" Online headline, Duluth News Tribune, 2009-03-10, Updated 6 p.m.

Some of the commentators to this latter article are faulting the weather forecasters for their alarmism. In general, many people fault weather forecasters for lack of "accuracy" because not as much rain fell, it was sunny when clouds were predicted, and on and on.

I would rather that weather forecasters be alarmist and give us the worst case scenario. People would really be up in arms if forecasters gave the best case scenario and the worst case happened.

The best that forecasters can do is report likely events from a complex array of weather systems. The current storm did not develop as predicted because moisture that was moving towards this area dropped it as thunderstorms farther south.

The only time I fault forecasters is when they predict clear skies and we have clouds. I can't remember any predictions like this since radar was used in weather prediction.

Snow removal done in the wrong order by the wrong people

The cities and counties clear the roads as fast as they can. In fact, because we want efficiency, they go so fast that packed snow gets thrown on the sidewalks. It is now the property owners responsibility to remove this snow within 24-48 hours.

Some property owners get out promptly, often after removing the natural snowfall. Some property owners are not strong enough to do it at all. And some property owners don't even think about shoveling snow or downright refuse to do so. "The city put it there; let them remove it."

Meanwhile, the poor pedestrian is left to slog through this mess, sometimes with threat to life and limb. Some pedestrians walk in the street, putting both themselves and drivers at risk. Oh yes, don't forget the brave or foolhardy runners who are out everyday no matter the conditions.

In the interest of energy conservation, maybe we should reverse the responsibility. The city should be responsible for clearing the sidewalks of snow, and the property owners should be responsible for clearing the streets of snow.

This would discourage people from driving and encourage more walking and bus ridership.

It would also reduce taxes. Less expensive equipment and operators would be needed to clear sidewalks than to clear roads.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Let's do away with capital gains taxes, dividend taxes, and estate taxes by...

Replacing them with taxing withdrawals from savings. Not withdrawals from your passbook savings account or your money market fund. That could well be money that was already taxed, especially considering the low interest on these currently.

I think a better plan would be to create investment accounts similar to IRAs. If you put money into an IRA it is not taxed. When you withdraw money from an IRA you are taxed at the wages rate on the full amount of the withdrawal, regardless of the source of the money: original contribution, capital gains, dividends, or interest.

In one way, you can look at an IRA as a lousy investment tax-wise. You may have saved some taxes at time of deposit, but you may be paying for more taxes than if you had put the money in a traditional mutual fund, especially if you had large capital gains over the life of your account.

However, if we move all investments to IAs, we solve the problem of taxing capital gains, dividends, and interest at a lesser rate than taxing work at a desk or bench. We also eliminate many of the side effects of people changing investments to get some tax advantage. The markets may be less chaotic at year's end as people buy or sell stock for some advantage.

We also solve the problem of estate taxes. Those who bequeath or who are bequeathed often don't want a penny of taxes to come out of the estate. But what happened to all the capital gains taxes that might have been paid if the deceased had lived. If an Investment Account is bequeathed, the beneficiaries would only be taxed on the money they withdrew. They would be free to buy and sell investments in the Investment Account without being concerned about the tax consequences of the transactions.

Probably most opposition to this plan would come from those benefiting from the current tangle of tax laws - lawyers, estate planners, and so on.

I've been sitting on this idea for some time; I was prompted to write about it after reading "Savings Accounts for All: Simple, but Not Easy" by Ron Lieber for the New York Times and republished today on Yahoo! Finance.

I also posted the above to

Monday, March 09, 2009

Do fuel surcharges ever become fuel discounts?

We all groused about the fuel surcharges when fuel prices kept going up and up. We didn't like them, but many of us understood they were necessary if companies were to remain viable. I wonder where the "government should live within its means" people were then.

As fuel prices dropped below what companies budgeted, how many of them gave a fuel discount? I haven't noticed any news about discounts.

I know my city government gave one. Our first bill for gas from the city-owned water and gas utility has a "purchased gas adjustment"; it is about a 20% discount.

Even before the discount, the gas cost was significantly less for December than the oil company decided we should be budgeted for every month. That decision was made in the spring of 2008.

Please recognize there are two other reasons for this discrepancy. Our new gas furnace has much greater efficiency than our old oil furnace. And of course, the price of heating oil has dropped considerably since last spring. Oops, I forgot a third reason. We may have burned more wood this year than last; I do know we are burning better and dryer wood this year.

Ah, if only more people would make a careful analysis of all the relevant facts rather than look only at the "facts" which "prove" their case. People of differing political persuasions fall into this trap.

I had thought Danae's giving "29" as an answer to a math problem was just her own peculiarity of her self-indulgence. Then it dawned on me that Wiley Miller uses her as an atavar for all those who think their view is the correct view. See "Non Sequitur" for 2009-02-27 and before.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

I bought an obsolete product!

Last week I bought a low-power FM transmitter and auto charger for my iPod. I really wanted to have it before our ski trip for when we couldn't get a good public radio signal. Just having a passenger click on a selection is easier than recognizing that a CD is starting back at the beginning. Besides, I think I have more CDs and podcasts on my iPod than we could put into the console between the seats.

After I bought it I was musing about replacing our pickup truck with a van. I'm getting a bit too stiff to climb into a pickup truck. As I read through specs, I found out that some new vehicles have USB ports. One can just plug an iPod or other MP3 player into the dashboard and have the sound come out the car speakers! What will they think of next?

Hm! I don't think $85 dollars for the transmitter and a thousand or so dollars a year in repairs really compares to twenty to thirty thousand for a new vehicle.

But, if I had had the transmitter when we left on our ski vacation, I would have never heard Clay Jenkinson doing his impersonation of how Thomas Jefferson would react to today's events. If I remember correctly, old Tom didn't care for the stimulus packages. See "The Thomas Jefferson Hour".

I have already downloaded four episodes of the Jefferson Hour. But first, I have catch up on "To the Best of Our Knowledge" and "PRI's The World: Technology Podcast".

Save a tree? Why?

One of the popular green advertising slogans is "Save a tree, use" less of this paper product or other. One of the extremes is not to take a receipt from a gas pump or any other place.

I am one that recycles a lot of stuff. Junk mail, newspapers, toilet paper rolls, beer bottles, beer caps, and on and on. I do feel that it is important that we recycle as much as convenient.

Every so often I wonder if we're trading one resource for another. Does the water needed to properly rinse food containers offset the value obtained by recycling the glass or plastic. Does anyone really get a tomato juice bottle or cap really clean? If so, what is the cost of the water (and time) against the marginal cost of producing new glass.

On save a tree, which trees are we saving? Those in parklands? In national forests? Or those on private land? If on many private lands and even some public land, for every tree cut down, one of more trees are replanted. If the trees weren't cut down, they might die, fall over, and rot. That has its benefits, but its sort of six of one, a half dozen of the other. Worse, the trees could get dry in a drought and put a hell of a lot of carbon back in the atmosphere.

We are currently cutting about a dozen trees a year for firewood. On the other hand we are planting 25 trees a year. Even if only half survive, we are replacing what we cut.

The economics can get really interesting on this. We drive a 14-16 mpg truck on a round trip of less than 100 miles. We cut a tree and haul back wood from previous cuttings. We burn the wood in our fireplace. If we burn wood in our fireplace then we are not burning gas in our furnace (or oil in our previous furnace). Is the saving in fossil fuel for heat offsetting the cost of fossil fuel for travel. Probably so, because we would go to our cabin just for recreation. In the winter or when we have lots of stuff to haul we take the pickup truck over the Prius.

Another tricky calculation is the capacity of trees to absorb carbon vs. the amount of heat reflected by snow covered ground. Someone suggested cutting down the trees in snow country would allow more heat to be reflected back into space. We do know that it was warmer last month in Montana where there was little snow on the ground than in North Dakota where the ground was covered. This was also in the same day when we traveled from Bozeman to Bismarck.

Somewhere in between the global warming skeptics and the global warming alarmists there is a common sense attitude towards having a climatologically comfortable and productive planet.

See also "Mission Impossible: Global warming debunking debunking", Reader Weekly, 2008-03-13

Privileged pricing gets more public service?

One of the hot ideas for reducing congestion is to have congestion pricing for special lanes of highways. If you are willing to pay you can have access to supposedly less congested lanes. In other words, better public service is available to those willing to pay for it.

What's next? Those who are willing to pay get faster police and fire response. Your garage fire gets better response than someone's house fire? Your breakin while you were on vacation gets better response than someone being threatened by an intruder?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Premonitions and predictions

A popular tale of a premonition that came true is about the traveler who decided not to board a ship or plane, and then the ship sank or the plane crashed. This seems to verify the strength of premonitions.

But what is rarely considered is the number of people who have premonitions of something happening but nothing happens.

I've been in the latter group many times in my life.

Over ten years ago I woke in the middle of the night feeling certain that a retired minister I knew had died. As far as I know, he is still alive and well.

A few nights ago the phone rang, and I was certain that it was a half-brother calling to say his mother had died. Well, I was partly right. It was my sister-in-law Jean calling to chat. My stepmother's name is also Jean.

Today I had premonitions that cutting down a tree at our cabin would not go well. The tree would fall on me. The tree might bounce and clunk me in the face. I might do something stupid with the chain saw. I would have liked my wife to have taken a movie of the tree falling, but I felt that would be a jinx.

The tree fell within ten degrees of where I wanted it to fall. I delimbed the tree and cut it into rounds suffering only a slightly stiff back from bending over.

But I won't give up on premonitions. I know it will snow in Duluth in the next two weeks.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Sporadic blogging will be the norm for awhile

I would like to spend my daylight hours skiing and my evening hours reading and writing. Unfortunately a lot of other tasks get in the way.

My major task right now is to fix the disarray some of our financial records have fallen into. Both of our bookkeepers have made errors, sometimes at cross purposes to each other.

While I've been trying to make sense of these records, unanswered email has been piling up, as well as loose papers on my desk. Some of those emails are courtesy reminders that statements are available and payments are due. If I take time to pay them, will our financial records fall into even further disarray?

This drain on my time is cutting seriously into my reading time. If I don't read about all the crazy things going on in the world, how am I going to apply my wisdom to addressing them in this blog?

Oops! I better hide. I think I see a lightning bolt aimed at me for hubris.

The bill for the indirect tax to the city is in

My truck wasn't ready yesterday because the mechanic ran out of time. The dealer gave me a loaner for overnight, and I went back this afternoon to pick up my truck.

As I wrote yesterday, a tie rod had to be replaced. The sleeve was on the ball joint, and the latter had to be replaced also. I was a bit pessimistic about the total bill. It was $594.13.

I went to the filing cabinet to look up our real estate taxes for Duluth. For this year and last we will pay about $600. Add the tax for the auto repair and that is $1200 in taxes to the city of Duluth for two years. I think I would rather pay that directly and have better streets.

Would you believe that the dirt road that runs in front of our cabin is in better shape than some of the streets around our house? And we pay a pittance in real estate taxes to the township. Maybe we should go back to having dirt roads in our cities. When the snow trucks come by, they will smooth the streets.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The time for a moderate party is now

Today's Star Tribune printed a column by David Brooks that they titled "Moderates, this is your call to action". The original was published in the New York Times on March 3 as "A Moderate Manifesto".

I hope all non-Limbaugh Republicans, all Democrats who think President Obama and Congress are overreaching, and those who have no party affiliation but think seriously about governance will start to come together to form a real third party - a party that both marginalizes those with a narrow agenda and reigns in those who think the federal government should be concerned with everything. It has been 155 years since there was a viable third party; we are long overdue for a new major party.

I have had some hopes that the Independence Party of Minnesota would be one of the catalysts, but they have or had two problems.

First is the problem of "throwing votes away" by voting for a third party. This is a serious problem in the U.S. We keep getting the "lesser of two evils". I wonder who threw their votes away in the latest Minnesota vote for U.S. Senator - those who voted for Al Franken or those who voted for Norm Coleman?

Second, the Independence Party had too many gimmicks in its platform or principles. Two that come to mind are calling for a unicameral legislature and instant-runoff voting. I mentioned this to Dean Barkley, the unsuccessful Independence Senatorial candidate when he sent me a solicitation email. I kept telling myself to send my own thoughts to the party, but I never got around to it. I think others may have had some of my concerns; I couldn't find unicameral and IRV on the current pages of the Independence Party.

David Brooks, I hope this blog is a contribution to your call to action.

See also "The Moderate Manifesto", Reader Weekly, 2004-11-18

Debt bad, nuclear power good?

Many are promoting nuclear power as one of the solutions to global warming or energy independence or both. As with many issues, proponents look on the up side but not the down side.

This thought was triggered by "Nuclear power is still loaded with problems", Ken Bradley and Monique Sullivan, Star Tribune, 2009-03-05

Interestingly, nuclear power plants won't be built without government subsidies, further increasing future debt.

I scribbled in the margin of the paper, "If it is bad to leave a huge government debt to future generations, why is it OK to leave the problem of nuclear waste to more distant future generations."

For more of my thoughts on this, see " ", Reader Weekly, 2008-06-19

No one is really hiring?

This was a headline in today's Duluth News Tribune as a declarative statement.

"Come on!" thought I; somebody has to be hiring for a variety of reasons. I checked the Help Wanted section and there were several jobs listed. The appeal of them varied as well as the pay. Even the beleaguered school district was hiring.

I stopped at a Radio Shack for a dock for my iPod. I asked the sales representative if Radio Shack was hiring. He paused and said, "I think we have an opening."

As I'm writing this, I'm waiting for service on my truck. I chatted with the service manager on a variety of issues and asked him about hiring. As expected for the auto industry, his answer was negative. On the other hand, I overheard a customer saying that the repair bill on his out-of-warranty truck was going to be three to ten thousand dollars. He must have enough business to justify paying that kind of money to stay in business. And both of us are helping the service part of the auto industry keep going.

Let's call a trade a trade

I've long been annoyed about stock market reporting that states "investors were" optimistic, pessimistic, pleased, irritated, delighted, or dismayed about some news and therefore the market went up or down accordingly. One of today's examples from is
Investors retreated from Wall Street again, driven by worries about the nation's big banks and General Motors Corp.
But, investors don't react positively to news one day and negatively the next. Traders do. Investors are in it for the long term and will buy or sell according to trends lasting longer than a day. Traders are in for the short term whether it's minutes, hours, or days.

I had another insight into what investing thanks to Michael Gerson, "A Week of Revelation", Washington Post, 2009-03-04.

In it, he said that governments don't invest, they spend. Gosh darn it, governments do invest in education, roads, basic, and many support activities that people and businesses rely on in order to make money. We can see what happens in too many countries that don't invest. They don't have the human capital to build a strong economy when free schools are few and far between. Their businesses have higher transportation costs because of the poor quality or lack of roads. They have to rely on imports for medicines and technology because they have little basic research. And they don't have a civil society in which business can thrive because the police are ineffective or corrupt and bureaucracies are a tangle of competing interests.

It's easy to criticize government investing because no balance sheet shows the return on investment, a return that might not be seen for years or decades.

Are Gerson's investors really investing? Or are they merely providing liquidity for those who bought from investors who bought from investors ... who bought from the original investors who started an enterprise. We could consider any person who bought or sold shares a trader. They didn't start the companies they "invest in" or provide a dime of capital when the company started. As I wrote at the beginning of this paragraph, they do provide liquidity for the market. When any original investor wants to sell shares, there is a market for the shares. Of course, the persons who buy the shares want the same ability to sell the shares later. Without these markets less money might be invested in the first place.

Similarly, without government investment the stock market would be a shadow of itself. What would our country be like without the government investment in the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, the Internet, and an educated citizenry.

I'm paying "high taxes" again!

I brought my truck into a Ford dealer because it has been squeaking on the right front. Tuesday I could push down on the bumper and the truck sounded like a whimpering puppy. Today I pushed down and heard nothing. On my trip to the dealer, I heard nothing.

The service representative just told me there was something, expensive somethings. A boot on the in the suspension was torn. When it was cold and dry it squeaked. Today it is warm with standing water on the roads. The boot is lubricated with water and doesn't squeak.

Additionally a tie rod is loose and has to be replaced. And, of course, the front end has to be realigned when all the repairs are made.

As of this writing, I don't know the full cost, but it will be over six hundred dollars, eight wouldn't surprise me.

How do front ends get damaged? From potholes. Why are there potholes? Because we won't pay enough taxes to build roads that will stand up to harsh weather, and we won't even pay enough taxes to repair the roads we have in a timely fashion.

So, we have to pay for the condition of our roads in another way. Either way, we are being taxed. Interestingly, this repair will be more than we pay to the City of Duluth in real estate taxes each year.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

TANSTAAFL bites the hand that fed it

Back in the seventies, TANSTAAFL was a favorite slogan of Republicans in Minnesota. I think there was even a newsletter titled that. TANSTAAFL means There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Along with this slogan there was the accusation of "soft on crime" against the Democrats. To back up their tough stance, the Republicans passed some tough laws that they wanted rigorously enforced.

In order to enforce laws, you need a criminal justice system that will attempt to sort out the guilty from the innocent. Oops, I forgot, "Everybody knows he's guilty." Well, enough decent people of various political persuasions didn't believe that and wanted to see a good justice system.

Now, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Republican, Minnesota) wants to cut back on the costs of courts in Minnesota. But he's the one that cut back taxes. Is he asking for a free lunch?

BTW, I did a search of "TANSTAAFL Republican Minnesota newsletter" and the second hit was to

I searched both the visible page and the source for TANSTAAFL. Nothing!

The Google item was dated 2/13 but a date in the page's source was 2/27. Did somebody think touting TANSTAAFL was not a good idea at this time?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fair share of taxes, just what is it?

Many writers on the left call for the "rich" to pay their "fair share of taxes". A recent example was printed in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, "Obama is right to take on the very rich", written by Chuck Collins and Sam Pizzigati for Common Dreams. An aside, don't be thrown by the forms at the top of the page; the full article is below the form.

So what is this "fair share"? Many define it as people paying the same percentage of their income or even paying a higher percentage for higher income. This latter is called progressive taxation. Others define it as paying for what you use of government services. For example, if you don't have kids in school, then you shouldn't have to pay taxes to support the schools.

This latter is a very narrow-minded approach to government services. It's like saying that you don't drive anywhere, and so you shouldn't pay for roads. However, how are groceries brought to the store; how are packages delivered to your door; how does the ambulance get to your house when you have a heart attack? You'll need roads for each of these, whether you drive or not. And when you have a heart attack, you will need a doctor who most likely began his or her schooling in public schools.

Depending on others being educated is what makes many people rich. Do you think somebody like Bill Gates programmed every piece of software, wrote every piece of advertising, and wrote every piece of documentation? No, he depended on thousands of programmers, marketing people, writers, delivery people, sales people, and floor sweepers. Even the last had to be educated to read directions, cleaning supply labels, and signs in the buildings.

I don't deny that he came up with a clever idea when he wrote Microsoft BASIC, and horrors, according to the ethos of the time, he sold copies of it. He also had many other clever ideas and built a very large team to come up with more clever ideas. He also invested a lot of money into Microsoft. You can argue that he overcharged and engaged in monopolistic practices, but few would argue that he shouldn't have become rich from the effort he started. But he couldn't have done it without a lot of government support in the form of roads, schools, sewers, regulations that ensure a reliable supply of electricity, building inspections for safe workplaces, oversight of securities markets for fair buying and selling of shares in Microsoft, and on and on.

In other words, Bill Gates depended on a predictable, civilized society to create, build, and maintain his enterprise. The more money you have, the more you need a civilized society. "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society", Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Somehow, our politicians have bought into the myth that rich became so by their own individual efforts and that government taxation will take funds from further investment. That would be true if government confiscated all, or even nearly all income above a certain level. On the other hand, if government didn't tax at all, there would be no infra-structure to support investment, no educated people do all the work investors need to be done, and even no educated people to use many very sophisticated products that have been produced with investors' money.

This myth has led to more and more tax breaks for those who merely move money around, and less civilized society for those who really make the increase in money possible. Because our government withdrew from many of its responsibilities because of a disdain for government and taxes, even the wealthy have become less wealthy, and many of those who the wealthy depended upon are losing almost all of their own wealth.

For more of my thoughts on taxes, see "Straight talk on taxes" as well as the articles listed in the "Related Articles" sidebar.