Monday, August 31, 2009

An offensive against spammers or a counter-attack by spammers?

Twice early this morning I was sent "Warning: could not send message for past 4 hours". It was in response to two of the three messages I sent yesterday to PayPal and two banks about phishing with a copy to FTC Spoof .

Either the FTC was overwhelmed with forwarded spam or spammers tried a denial-of-service attack last night. Let's hope it's the former, which is bad enough. Let's also hope that the authorities are finding lots of these crooks and putting them out of business. I saw an estimate that over a third of the Internet traffic is spam!!

See also "Phishing against which bank this week?"

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A cool, new telephone service - Google Voice

Google has started a free, new service that allows you to route incoming calls to one or more of your phones, home, cell, or work. This is great if you have friends, relatives, or customers who are trying to track you down.

For example, my wife's sisters often will call us at home when we are at the cabin, or vice versa, but not both. However, if they call our Google Voice number, both phones might ring and we would answer the one we were at.

We also get caller ID if the caller is on our Google Voice contact list. We also get call blocking in that we can choose to accept or not accept a call.

My daughter thought this would be great for her use because she switches among a company phone, her home office phone, and her cell phone. By letting customers and employees know her Google Voice number, they would be able to reach her with a single call.

For more information see https://services.google.com/fb/forms/googlevoiceinvite/. There is a button for more information on Google Voice at the bottom of the invitation page.

Google Voice also provides within the U.S. and Canada free long-distance. Outside this area they provide very low cost service. For example, most of Europe is two cents per minute, and Japan is three cents per minute. For some countries, it can cost more to call a cell phone. For a complete list of rates, see http://www.google.com/support/voice/bin/answer.py?answer=141925

For long distance, you can either do it from one of your registered phones or online. If you place the call from one of your registered phones, you enter your four-digit PIN, select place a call from the voice menu, and then dial the number. This is not much different from using a call service like CogniDial.

If you do it online, you can call or send SMS from your contact list, or you can enter any number in a sidebar. I think then your phone will ring for the call. Skype has an advantage here in that you can use your computer for the call without extra equipment.

Speaking of Skype, it already provides free world-wide video calls; the drawback is that both parties must have a Skype account. Oh, yes, both parties must also have a web-cam for a video call.

The cost and ease of world-wide communications has been improving dramatically and will probably improve even faster over the next decade. I remember when it as a long-distance call for a few miles away, from a couple of miles to about 25 miles, depending on where you lived in a calling area. To make a long-distance call you had to go through an operator. In some countries, you had to request your call in advance and be ready hours later for the call to be completed.

First came direct-dial calls all across a country, then direct-dial across national borders, and then across oceans. It was a big thing when long-distance was a dollar-a-minute anywhere in the U.S., and then it dropped to twenty-five cents a minute. I don't know what local telephone companies charge now. I do know you can get single-charge long-distance with some providers, either for a set number of minutes per month or unlimited number of minutes.

I wouldn't be surprised if in ten years one could call anywhere in the world for free, the only cost being a fixed cost for telephone or internet access.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Are there any monopolies left?

I've been thinking about writing this blog for some time because I think most monopolies have met competition. I was spurred to write such a blog on seeing an appeals court action in favor of Comcast over an FCC rule -- "Court rejects cap on cable market share – again".

Oops, I can't give you the URL because Yahoo Finance has some block from using it other than a Yahoo Finance page. So to read rejection article, first go to http://finance.yahoo.com and then copy and paste all of

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Court-rejects-cap-on-cable-apf-4283410271.html;_ylt=ApfFZ31U4vvHDv99Cs8DBwC7YWsA;_ylu=X3oDMTE1M2NpMDZkBHBvcwM0BHNlYwN0b3BTdG9yaWVzBHNsawNjb3VydHJlamVjdHM-?x=0&sec=topStories&pos=2&asset=&ccode=

into the URL box of your browser.

I'm sorry about past Yahoo Finance references I've given you that may not have worked. Nobody I know complained.

Back to what I wanted to write.

Essentially the FCC had been directed by Congress to set a limit on how much national coverage any cable company can have. The appeals court ruled that the FCC did not consider all possible issues in determining what would compose a monopoly.

These include the competition for TV subscription service from satellite companies and telephone companies.

This same but not exactly the same competition exists in other fields.

An airline might have a monopoly on an air route between two cities, but flying is not the only way to get there. Many people can drive or take a bus, especially when the cities are close. Given the hassle of airport security, they may even arrive more quickly than flying. For some routes, like the Boston-Washington corridor, rail travel may be preferable, if for nothing more than being able to walk around frequently.

About the only routes that air travel has no meaningful competitors is across oceans. Few want to take the many, many days that a ship would take. Even then, most major routes have multiple airlines serving them.

All transportation modes have another major competitor – telecommunications. Why make an expensive, time-consuming trip when you can just make a cheap phone call or send email.

The Bell companies once had a monopoly on telephone service in most parts of the company. A court broke them up to give other telephone companies a better chance. The decision had its up sides and its down sides. But I bet the judge did not forsee the free-for-all in telephony competition that exists now.

You can have a cell phone from several carriers, or you can use your computer and Skype. For the latter, you don't have to use a telephone; see above about cable companies.

Electricity is still mostly a monopoly, but you can take many steps to reduce your reliance on the power company, other than conservation. You can install solar panels or wind turbines to augment or replace grid electricity; the extent you can do so depends on your location and your wallet.

Natural gas has not been a monopoly for a long time. Propane and electricity have been alternative cooking fuels. These plus oil and wood are alternative heating fuels.

Railroads were once monopolies. If you wanted to ship something to another city, you generally had once choice of railroad. Then highways got better and small loads could be shipped anywhere in the nation by truck. And a shipper didn't need access to a rail spur.

As time goes on, we will see more and more alternatives to monopolistic services. TV replaced newspapers for many people, the internet is replacing both newspapers and TV for more and more. What's next to fall?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

We really have three political parties

I lay awake early this morning thinking about what parties would be like if they aligned themselves according to their common beliefs.

My first thought was that we really have three parties: the ridiculous right, the loonie left, and the muddling middle. The extremes set the tone for both Republicans and the Democrats and the pragmatists only get to set the brakes a bit.

The Republicans have come to be dominated by their fringe, and that fringe is alienating more voters. The Democrats are torn between their "conservative" faction and their fringe. The latter asks for the moon and the former almost caters to the Republicans, the old-style corporate interest Republicans.

It would be interesting if the Democrats split in three: the "conservatives", the problem solvers, and the fringe. If that were to happen, would the "conservatives" attract "moderate" and "liberal" Republicans, if any are left? If so, the hard-line Republicans would be marginalized, and we could get back to governance instead of squabbling. It would also solve Obama's bipartisanship problem.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Nerd is not a dirty word at these schools

After I wrote "Nerdy words that aren't dirty" and "Blaming the schools for what they can't control" I found out that I had an article on my coffee table that sort of tied the two blog entries together and went even further.

Wired 17.09 contains "Making Geeks Cool Could Reform Education" by Daniel Roth. Several schools have found that by breaking the kid culture, by plenty of adult supervision and by having students work in teams, that kids will do much better academically and more likely to go on to college. This can even happen in schools with mostly lower-income families.

I would say that good education is going to come from the bottom up with many experiments and not from the top down with one size fits all.

If anything is going to come from the top down, it should be the President highlighting a school or a group of schools every month. No money, no laws, just a little bit of publicity.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Blaming the schools for what they can't control

Laura Rowley wrote that self-control is a better predictor of grades or other successes than IQ. See “Why I Canned the Cable”.

College students who multitask heavily fare worse than those who multitask less. See "Multitasking Muddles Brains, Even When the Computer Is Off", Brandon Keim, Wired, 2009-08-24.

If a kid lives in a two-room apartment where the TV is always on and there is at least one conversation going, will he or she do as well in school as someone who has his or her own bedroom in a reasonably quiet house?

Only the most dedicated and clever teachers can work successfully with children with little self-control living in a "busy" home. Especially when there are 30 or more kids in the same room.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The manic depression of a soloist

I volunteered to sing Raghupati at a church service today, and I've forgotten how long I've been trying to learn it and when I set up the date, but both were months ago.

Raghupati was a favorite of Gandhi and he used it in his daily prayer service. It calls for peace between Muslims and Hindus.

When I mentioned my interest to a friend of Indian descent, he suggested today, Ganesh's birthday. Ganesh is the elephant-headed god. He also suggested I do it with a drummer friend of his.

I practiced and practiced and felt I was getting both the words and the music right. Learning Hindi, you think that must be a real problem. Not really, if I say to you "Do, re" you can finish the sequence with "mi, fa" etc. back to "do", right? So, I learn a bunch of syllables in a certain order. Raghupati is a bit easier because so many phrases are used over and over again. The only word I really know in the song is "Allah".

The hardest part is that the score I have has no rests! And the song is supposedly fast. Puff! Puff!

I met with the drummer a few weeks ago, and after about an hour of practice, she thought it was doable. She sounded a bit skeptical, but she was being encouraging. At a second practice she suggested some changes in the order of choruses and verses, mostly dropping the call and response format.

Still, I had some concerns about mixing the order or skipping phrases, and was I on key all the time. On Friday night I practiced it at our cabin. Since our cabin is only a single room, my wife couldn't escape to another room. When I sang without keyboard accompaniment, she said I was flat sometimes and sharp others. When I sung with accompaniment, she said I got all or almost all the notes right.

Hoo boy! Two days to go. I won't get much better in that time. I emailed the church music director asking if she could accompany me and the drummer. She replied she could, and I emailed her a copy of my arrangement. I left a message with the drummer about this change.

I should point out that I prefer singing from memory. I feel I make better contact with the audience than if I had music in hand and kept putting my nose in it.

The three of us met early this morning at the church and began practicing. In the first two tries I suddenly forgot what came next at one point or another. On the third try I went through it with only a small mistake or two. Now I felt a bit better and sort of relaxed.

Of course, I still kept sub-vocalizing phrases. It was very difficult for me to get the song out of my head.

A few minutes before I was to sing, I realized I couldn't connect two phrases. Fortunately, I had the music with me and made a quick check. My time came. I went to the microphone and made a small introduction. The pianist and drummer began, I sub-vocalized the introduction and away we went.

I had the congregation's attention and even noted at least one person in a meditative state. This was the conclusion of the meditation part of the service. I kept moving on through the song and noticed I was late or early a few times. The last note rang out. I put my hands together, bowed to the congregation, said "Om, shantih, shantih, shantih!" (Peace), turned to the drummer and said a garbled version of "Danyavad" (thank you), turned to the pianist and garbled "Danyavad" again. I sat down. My solo was over.

After the service, I told the pianist that I knew I was early or late a few times. She replied, "Yes, you were, but mistakes will be made." Overall though, she thought I did well. And so did the drummer. I couldn't stop thanking either for their support and encouragement.

My wife, however, pointed out that I had mistakes on some notes also. Darn perfectionist. However, another really good singer didn't notice any mistakes. But she hadn't been hearing it daily for many months.

Many other people gave me compliments and said they enjoyed it.

But the best compliment was from the friend that recommended the drummer. He organizes a Dewali service every year and would like me to do Raghupati as a call and response with even more verses! Dewali is the big Hindu winter solstice holiday though it wanders far from the solstice. Many shops have more business around Dewali than the rest of the year.

From being so depressed that I thought this would be my last solo, if I even did it, to looking forward to the next solo. What an emotional ride!

Now I'm thinking about "Un flambeau, Jeanette et Isabelle (A torch, Jeanette and Isabella)" for Christmas. I have the music and found a couple more verses on the web. Nous verrons! We shall see! At least I'll understand most of the words.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Memorable weddings in the North Woods

Grab your sweetie, head to the North Woods of Minnesota, and have a wedding you will never forget at the Loonie Lake Wedding Chapel in Brimson, Minnesota. Reservations are going fast; call the number below today.

You will have a wedding on a deck overlooking the sky blue waters of Loonie Lake. Your wedding will be officiated by certified wedding provider Hoss Geetar, with organ music by Lena Zinc, and a marvelous cake by Pat Noman. Optional photos provided by local nature photographers; see the list below.

You want to get married. You want it to be memorable. Now is your chance. Hurry! Call the number above before the snow flies.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Change with a carrot instead of a stick

I was wandering around the New York Times and was attracted to a Freakonomics article "How Much Do Protests Matter?" I surprised myself by reading many of the following comments. One comment completely diverted my attention; it mentioned the Carrot Mob.

The about page of the Carrot Mob had a 10-minute video that kept my short attention span attentive. Essentially, they take bids among business for some improvement; in this case, liquor stores in a give area were asked to bid on a percentage of sales they were willing to commit to energy efficiency. The winning bid was 22 percent!

The owner's son said they typically gross $1,000-2,000 per day. He guessed that the partial day sale, I think it was two or three hours, would gross $5,000. It grossed over $9,000 for that short period.

With that money, they made several energy improvements, including new seals on their coolers.

The Carrot Mob idea has caught on in several states and countries. The next Carrot Mob is in Brooklyn, NY on August 23. The Mob will descend on a Deli that bid 21% for whatever. I didn't take much care in reading the rather disjointed announcement. See http://brooklyn.carrotmob.org for your own take on what is going on.

The mismeasurement of education

In last Saturday's Budgeteer News, Pete Langr disputed an earlier column on education by another Budgeteer columnist, Virgil Swing. See "Test scores aren't a reliable indicator of quality", Pete Langr, Duluth Budgeteer News, 2009-08-15. Swing used test results to compare the quality of various schools, locally and internationally. Langr wrote that test scores are only part of the picture.

As an example, Langr use a remark by his sister that her school was better than a neighboring school. Her school kicked out its two worst students who went to the other school. That those two students increased the score of one school and decreased the score on another school says nothing about how well the rest of the students are doing. Without the scores of those two students both schools may have done equally well, as measured by standardized tests.

Langr and I exchanged a few emails on his column, and with his permission, here is some of what we wrote.

Magree: Thanks for another good column.

I don’t think many want to make the effort to measure the true success of schools: how happy are graduates with what they do with their lives and how much have they made the lives of others better?

You could measure how much graduates earn, but that doesn’t measure how much better they have made the world.

You could measure how many go on to college but NCLB doesn’t wait that long. For example, if Central High is failing because it didn’t meet AYP standards, is anybody counting how many graduates go on to college? I would bet that there are more Central graduates who go on to college than there are Central students who don’t make Annual Yearly Progress.

I think NCLB and the whole school quality “debate” are hidden ploys to decimate the public school system, ignoring that public schools have helped build a robust economy by producing a huge number of skilled people.

However, an unrestrained “free market” does not lead to a better education system. See “School Politics and the Wealth of Nations”.

Keep writing.

Langr: Your statement "how happy are graduates with what they do with their lives and how much have they made the lives of others better" is well beyond what I was thinking. I think you have a good perspective. I hadn't even got nearly that far. I was accepting the tests, but of course criticizing how they were used. You go way beyond that. Eventually, I will write more about what I think we should do.

I agree with you that much of NCLB actually seems designed to hurt schools, rather than help. We'll see how that plays out.

Thanks for the comment.

Magree: I just got back from choir practice and read your message. I got better music education in public schools than many people seem to have, but not enough to be a good musician. I know how to read music though not how to match it well. But one remark made by a high school music teacher has had a more profound impression on me than all the remembering of FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine. [For those of you who "can't read music", FACE are the names of the notes between the lines of the usual staff and EGBDF are the names of the notes on the lines.]

In tenth grade music class, the male teacher said, “Anyone with intelligence can sing.” I don’t remember a single other thing he said or taught and only have a vague memory of the class room, but I’ve never forgotten that remark. Do you think any teacher would get performance pay for that kind of remark?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Iranian history: lessons for now and then, for here and there

"The Coup against Mazdakite", Reza Akhlaghi, Tehran Bureau, 2009-08-18, is an interesting article drawn from the Iranian epic, Shahnameh by Ferdowsi.

Mazdak was a prime minister of Iran/Persia in the fifth and sixth century A.D. He instituted many reforms to curtail the excessive wealth of the aristrocracy, including access to harems!! Really, the rich had essentially cornered the "market" on women and many common men could not find wives.

Unfortunately, the rich and the clergy swayed the king to their side and many of Mazdak's followers were brutally slain.

Akhlaghi thinks that change against clerical dominance may be easier now than previously. The clerics are the custodians of oral culture; the people only received this knowledge and its interpretation from the clerics. As more and more culture becomes written and literacy spreads, the power of the clergy could become seriously diminished.

The lessons for now and for Iran and the U.S.?? Excessive wealth could be curtailed by a democracy of literate people.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Was my April Fool's joke too believable?

If you do a search for "Duluth" and "Billionaire", you will get in the top ten:

Billionaire Duluth Native Buys Northland Reader
Silicon Valley billionaire and Duluth native Nessuno Jarnowski Ingenvik announced today that he is buying the Northland Reader for an undisclosed price. ...
cpinternet.com/~mdmagree/april_fool_2000-04-01.htm - Cached - Similar

This particular web page gets at least one hit every day. I don't know what is so interesting about this page over some of my more profound Reader Weekly articles. Are people looking for get-rich-quick schemes? Are they looking for successful Duluthians? I don't know.

I do know that twice I got a call from somebody who wanted to reach Bob Boone, the publisher of the Reader Weekly. I could only refer him to the phone number listed on the mast head. The second time he asked me about Ingenvik, as if he really existed. Didn't he see the April Fool in the URL for the web page? Didn't he catch that three different people had different memories of him under different names?

I tried to come up with "nobody" in three different languages, but only could do so in Italian. My article has a footnote about my difficulties doing so in Polish. "Ingen" is "nobody" in Swedish, but that doesn't have the right ring for a surname. I tacked on "vik" meaning "bay, inlet, or cove", but now, nine years later, I realized I could have used "Ingensson", "nobody's son".

Oh well, as my first April Fool article for the Reader Weekly, it is doing better than all the others. See the sidebar of the billionaire article for other humor articles I wrote for the Reader Weekly.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Does "green energy" use too much water?

Today's Star Tribune Business section had an opinion article, "Saving droplets but losing gallons" by Samuel Lieberman.

He writes that ethanol and nuclear power consume too much water.

"[E]nergy production accounts for 39 percent of freshwater use, or 190 billion gallons per day."

and

"When it comes to thirsty energy, ethanol (2,000 gallons of water per gallon of gasoline) and nuclear power (millions of gallons of water per day) are the most prodigious users. Ethanol should be eliminated and nuclear power should be downsized, and the money and water should be reallocated to more efficient options, such as natural gas and geothermal energy."

I would assume water consumption would apply to any biomass fuel. It needs the water to grow.

But would any biofuel be that much a water consumer, whether ethanol or any other carbohydrate-based fuel. When these are burned they are converted into carbon dioxide and water. Both would be put into the atmosphere and in turn consumed by plants again. Would there be a balance point that plants would consume all the carbon dioxide that humans created and the water would turn into sufficient rain for all uses? That would make an interesting equation.

Then too the water used to cool nuclear plants would also be put back into the entire system. Would the water used in this way be hotter or cooler than the water given all in burning hydrocarbons or carbohydrates?

Possibly the problem is that the recycling is not occurring fast enough. How quickly does the water that we use get back into the watersheds that it came from? And how pure will it be?

An example of the recycling not occurring fast enough is the Himalayas. The snows of the Himalayas were once adequate to provide water to Tibet and other mountain countries as well as India and China. But no longer. Lieberman writes:
"China's recent clash with Tibet was incorrectly ascribed to human rights issues. It was about rights -- water rights. China needs access to Tibet's formerly ample surplus. Tibet's water, which comes from the Himalayas, is waning, so it is unwilling to help its thirsty neighbor."

Maybe the greatest peace activity that the U. S. can do is to have a crash project to find cheap ways to desalinate ocean water and move it far inland. If the Romans with their technology could move water from the mountains to Rome; is it such a far reach for modern technology to move water from the oceans to the mountains? I think the total human cost of not doing something like this is greater than the cost of doing it.

Science and the real world

"Nature knows nothing of the scientific laws we cook up. Nature does its own thing."
- "Physics is always a work in progress", unattributed, Reader Weekly, 2009-08-13

Newton's gravitational theory works fine for life on earth and space travel within the solar system. It doesn't work for GPS satellites. Time is faster at the altitude of the satellites than it is on the surface of the earth. Time is probably not that much faster away from the earth to affect calculations for space travel, but it is sufficiently faster to affect calculations down to a few meters on earth. To make these calculations, GPS satellite engineers have to use Einstein's theory of relativity.

Max Planck's law of thermal radiation has been used in many applications involving heat generation and transmission. His law breaks down at the tiny distances now being used in hard-disk recording devices. The recording head heats up more than would be predicted by Planck's law.

"What we call law today eventually breaks down, new opportunities for scientific and engineering progress usually appear."
- Ibid.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Health care "debate"? Walter, where are you when we need you?

If you think the health care "debate" has gotten out of hand, be sure to read
"In America, Crazy Is a Preexisting Condition", Rick Perlstein, Washington Post, 2009-08-16

This so-called left-right divide is more of a cosmopolitan-crazy divide. According to Perlstein, Walter Cronkite would not have treated some of this controversy as serious public debate; he would have called much of it crazy.

Some is what some people really believe; some of it is pandering to these people and feeding them misinformation that they are ready to believe.

There are many legitimate issues to be discussed about health care, but the discussion has degenerated into a shouting match by a minority. It is not helped by those in the media who continue to consider such shouting matches as legitimate political expression. I think the correct name is mob rule, something the Founders worried about.

It has been made worse by a party that panders to this minority and calls itself a major party. When will the honest members of that party break away. Sen. Arlen Specter was one who broke away, but he didn't seek enough independence.

Phishing against which bank this week?

It seems spam for banks goes in cycles. Last week it was Ally Bank, which I never heard of until the spammers struck. This week it is Chase. Who will it be next week? Bank of America? Citigroup?

You can strike back with a few minutes of your time.

How do you determine email is spam?

If it is from a bank with whom you do no business, then you can probably assume it is spam.

Your mail system may filter it as spam.

If you are using something like Microsoft's Outlook or Spam, you can look at the source of the message without opening it. If the headers indicate that it was not sent by a legitimate sender, you can assume it is spam. An illegitimate sender might be something like moonlight@luichen.cn, the cn indicating China.

Some web-based mail programs, like gmail, may let you look at these headers.

How do you report spam?

Go to the website of the bank or other target. Do not use the link in the spam, but type the line in your browser yourself. Look for "reporting spam" or go to the "Contact us" link. If the organization is working to protect itself, you will find something like spoof@xxx.com or abuse@xxx.com.

Either forward the spam email to the spoof/abuse address or include the email in an attachment. I prefer the latter because I think more details will be included. Plus, I can batch several emails in one message, and I only need drag the group to the attachment box. As I write this I already have four spams in the name of Chase Bank, and it's only 2:30 in the afternoon.

It is unbelievable how obvious spammers can be. The misspellings, the typos, the strained language; these are not native speakers of English. Of course, with outsourcing or immigration or with just plain carelessness errors get into messages. It's unbelievable the poorly written emails I get from support people at legitimate companies.

The latest "ignorant" spam I got was "Dear valued Bamk of America member," supposedly from n0-repli@banck0ffAmer1cA.com.

Oops, I almost forgot, also include FTC spoof as a recipient of the forwarded spam. Apparently the FTC is overwhelmed by inquiries and reports, I could not open the page with the press release of this address, http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2004/07/newspamemail.shtm. The server did not respond.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Instructions so simple that...

...they are not even included with the product.

We bought a pair of solar-powered LED yard lights for $5 at Menards. I stuck them in the ground on the way from our cabin to the outhouse. We never seemed to be here even at dusk since then.

Yesterday we finally stayed overnight to see the Perseid meteor shower. The yard lights didn't come on in the dark.

This morning I picked one up looking for some switch I should set. I saw none. I twisted off the top and found a battery with a plastic strip between its positive terminal and the flat contact of the lamp. I pulled the strip and the light came on! My other hand was over the solar panel! I took my hand away and the light went out.

Why didn't I think of checking that before?

Ghoulish foolishness

The ghoul howled foul when he was told he had no soul.

See "Homonym Homilies" for more of this silliness or cleverness, depending on your mind set.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

One of the many hidden costs of healthcare

Every month I receive a statement from the medical center we use. Part of me says to ignore it unless it says "Pay this amount". After all, why should I? The agent that sold us the Medicare supplement said, "You will never see another medical bill."

He exaggerated a bit because there are certain optional services that are not covered by Medicare, supplemental insurance, or other insurance programs. Like contact lenses. Insurance will cover glasses, but not contact lenses. At least for us who use them by choice.

In fact, optometrists offices will not turn over contact lenses until the patient has paid for them. I was surprised one year to see that the cost of contact lenses was passed on to Medicare even though I had paid for them. When I called the medical center office about this, I was told that they sent it on for deniability. I gave up trying to argue with a non-profit bureaucrat. Fortunately, this pass on has not occurred again.

However, the cost of the "contact lens evalution" is both not covered and not immediately passed on to the patient. It has run from $32 to $36 over the last few years. One year the medical center wrote it off before even charging me, one year I paid it after a few months without even being billed for it, and other years I wait until I'm billed for it.

On my July statement I was finally billed for the May 2008 contact lens evaluation. I paid the $35 without question. The cost for my May 2009 contact lens evaluation was carried forward on the June and July statements. The August statement is due in a few days. I bet the $36 for this year's evaluation will still be carried forward.

One of the marks of a successful organization is good cash flow. That is get payments due as soon as possible; then you have cash to pay your own bills and invest in new equipment, and so forth. $30-something may not be much in the big scheme of things, but how many of these little charges are floating around without being billed? How many larger charges are waiting on various non-profit, corporate, and government bureaucracies waiting for a judgement?

Here is the first place to "wring efficiencies" out of the system.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A lazy afternoon at our cabin

As we pulled up to our cabin in Brimson around noon today, I looked at the grass at the end of the driveway and thought I better mow it. As we parked I looked at the grass around the cabin and thought I better mow it. I also thought of the trail I intended to mow and trim back branches.

But is was a sunny day with little wind. The temp was 78 in the shade. The heck with it; we spend too much time working there. We were only going to be there four hours. I'm just going to loaf.

Well, I didn't quite just loaf; I did a few odds and ends. I hung up the hammock for my wife. I pumped some water to put out our "campfire" of junk bits of firewood. I started the fire. I emptied and washed mousetraps from tool shed.

Then I put out a folding chair in shade and sat down with my iPod. I wrote the notes for this blog and played about three "expert" games of Sudoku. I needed a hint for each of them. I only got up to get some drinking water or to rearrange the fire.

Whoosh! It was time to go home. Put out the fire. Clean up and lock up. Boo hoo! We're leaving. I can hardly wait until the next time, even if I will spend most of my time working.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A book review: Iran, A People Interrupted

Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-American professor of Iranian Studies, has written an interesting 200-year history of Iran, its culture, and its politics, both geo-political and internal. I find his writing in this book to be arrogant, opinionated, full of big words, extremely interesting, and very important. Sometimes I wondered if I would even finish it when I got lost in some of his concepts. But I read several pages most nights and made it through and I'm glad I did.

I will return it to the Duluth Public Library 2009-08-11. If you are interested in borrowing it, its call number is 955.05 D11i.

For starters about arrogance, he writes in his introduction:

"I promise you by the end of this book, you will know more about Iran than the U.S. Department of State, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, and five other neocon think tanks–not to mention the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Islamic Culture in the Islamic Republic of Iran–all put together. I know things they do not know, or do not care to know, or would rather forget, or never learned, or would not tell you." (p. 11)

But considering the arrogance of the people in these institutions who pretend to understand a complex history and a complex people, I feel he is justified. Do I know more than they do after reading his book? In some respects, yes. I do know that war, torture, and execution are not going to do the Iranian people and a lot of other peoples any good. But many of the so-called experts think that these undemocratic and irreligious actions will bring greater glory for their causes.

As an example of the complexity that these experts do not understand, Dabashi writes:

"Iranian political history is a Trojan horse. Inside its belly is a hidden force never noted either for what it is or for its catalytic effect on that political history. The hidden force is the power of the imagination, the force of defiant intellect. Any attempt to reduce the cosmopolitan pluralism of Iranian political culture to an Islamist, nationalist, or socialist absolutism is at once analytically ludicrous and politically catastrophic. More than anything else, such lame and lazy reductionism distorts the inner grace and overriding power of a thriving culture that outsmarts its tyrant rulers and career opportunistic observers alike." (p. 125)

Geopolitics often damages the ships of the high and the mighty. With their grand designs treating others as mere pawns, they do not recognize that the pawns are icebergs. So it was with the U.S., first overthrowing an elected prime minister of Iran, then treating the Shah as a great ally, then using the Afghani resistance to fight the Soviets and to contain Iran, and finally then having the Afghani resistance turn against the U.S. and having the Iranian mullahcracy turn inward.

As part of this grand design of geopolitics, the high and the mighty indulge in demonizing those who oppose them, for example, George W. Bush and others calling any resistance to their grand design "the enemy". Is it any wonder that many of the rulers of Iran are paranoid about the U.S.? Especially when Bush included Iran in the "Axis of Evil". His and his advisors' ignorance of internal Iranian politics undercut reformers who had been making gains. Now these reformers were considered traitors.

BTW, Dabashi wrote this book in 2007, two years before the recent election in Iran. An election followed by the resistance of a culture that was often outsmarting its tyrant rulers.

Dabashi predicted the current turmoil as one of two possibilities of failure with the election of Ahmadinejad. "At worst, he will abuse the hopes and aspirations invested in him and resume an Islamic reign of terror over those young yuppie voters with their stylish hairdos, chic scarves, and sexy sunglasses–in which case he will turn them and their innocent semiotics of resistance into the real inheritors of the moral authority of Shi'ism. ... [Shi'ism] is alway on the side of the tyrannized and discredits those who are in power..." (pp. 233-234)

I have many more notes, but I'll finish with Dabashi's last sentence:

"...the only way that Americans can help promote democracy in Iran and anywhere else in the world is by first and foremost restoring and safeguarding it in their own country." (p. 263)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The U.S. needs its own velvet revolution

According to Frank Rich, the "conservative" charge that Obama is a "socialist" is wrong, he is just as much a "corporatist" as the Republicans before him ("Is Obama Punking Us?", New York Times, 2009-08-08).

Obama has relented on the holding in drug prices and has not kept negotiations with lobbyists public as he promised.

Corporate money is pouring into the coffers of members of Congress of all persuasions.

If in the next elections we don't get candidates who depend only on individual donations, we have to foment our own velvet revolution. It will be hard because of our culture of "throwing our votes away", but we are doing it every time we vote for the same old, same old.

The only way I can think of for individuals to bring about change is to vote NO. The way not to do this is to stay home; your stay-at-home vote is not counted. You have to get out and vote, but you don't have to vote for Tweedledee or Tweedledum. You may have third party candidates who meet your criterion. You can always leave a particular office blank. Or you can write someone in, even if it is "None of the above".

It's up to you to bring about "Change you can believe in."

See also "If you don't vote, you have only yourself to blame", "Voting is not a horse race", and "Will a third party succeed?"

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Quote of the day

Belligerence is the currency of the intellectually bankrupt.

- Charles M. Blow, "Health Care Hullabaloo", New York Times, 2009-08-07

Friday, August 07, 2009

Bill Maher on our fellow citizen's intelligence

With a mix of fact and off-the-wall humor, Bill Maher held forth on how intelligence we are as a country, or rather how we are not, in "Smart President ≠ Smart Country".

That reminds me, someone at coffee said he would send me a name the state map game. He did not send it yet. The basis of his offer was a discussion on how many people can't place states on a map.

In that conversation, I mentioned the tale I heard about a Congressman who asked if he could drive to Hawaii. Which shows you how stories can take on a life of their own. The gullible would believe this story; the skeptical would not or would at least check. Without looking into every search item I found, I would say that "driving to Hawaii" is used as an example of an impossibility.

Review of a great anti-war movie

Wired.com has a very interesting review of "The Iron Giant", a 1999 animated science -fiction movie. It was a flop at the box office apparently because it didn't have enough destruction of evil. The article includes a YouTube clip of the final eight minutes.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Dubai: A listening post for Iran, and other notes

Jason Rezaian wrote "Reporting from Dubai" http://tehranbureau.com/reporting-dubai/ for the Tehran Bureau. He gives an interesting perspective on where it is easiest to find news about Iran. There is regular travel between Iran and Dubai, and Iranians feel more free to speak in Dubai. He does give a sense that discontent runs very deep in Iran.

Rezaian wrote that Lara Setrakian has been using her network of Iranians to "help round out her reports on Iran. Unfortunately, I searched ABC and her last report on Iran was from July 9.

For a good feel on why Obama must tread carefully concerning Iran, see "Why Russian & China Love Iran's Hardliners" http://tehranbureau.com/russia-china-irans-violent-crackdown/

For a selection of T-shirt ideas, see "Ahmadinejad is President".

Otherwise, I'm finding regular updates from the streets of Iran hard to come buy. The Lede of the New York Times does not start on its promised schedule and Nico Pitney has not written a blog for the Huffington Post on Iran for almost two weeks.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

For your bedtime reading pleasure: America's Affordable Healthcare Choices Act of 2009

I received an email response to my webmail about healthcare to Rep. Jim Oberstar. It is lengthy and many of you may have already received a similar response. One interesting item was that he provided a link to find the text of the bill, H.R. 3200. Go to http://thomas.loc.gov, enter the bill number, H.R. 3200, select the bill number button, and then click search.

I was curious because I doubt many voting either way will read the bill in its entirety. I read somewhere that it is bigger than the Old Testament and New Testament together. I stopped at the table of contents - 12 pages!

I hope this sausage is palatable.

Is this an example of the "finest health care in the world"?

See "Stop Trusting the Health Insurance Crooks", Allison Kilkenny, Huffington Post, 2009-08-05

I found it uncomfortable to watch all of the Congressional testimony included in this article. How many cases like this happen and how often? My guess is too many and too often.

At least we get to elect the bosses of government bureaucrats. We can't say the same about the bosses of corporate bureaucrats.

We ran out of legal presidential candidates long ago!

For the same reason that Barack Obama cannot be president, Ronald Reagan could not be president. It says so in the Constitution. See "The Constitution Say Obama Can't Be President. And Neither Could Reagan." Chris Kelly, Huffington Post, 2009-08-03

"No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President..." U. S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1

If we are to believe strict constructionists, then the Constitution should be taken word for word without interpretation. The government declared the Constitution in effect on March 4, 1789. Thus no person born after March 1789 is eligible to be president.

The first ineligible president was the tenth president, John Tyler, born March 1790. The last eligible president was the twelfth president, Zachary Taylor, born November 1784. So, we haven't had a legitimate president since 1850!

Gosh, all the wars the United States has engaged in since and including the Civil War have been illegal, all the laws signed by a president after 1850 have been illegal, and all the Federal taxes raised since 1850 have been illegal.

Ah ha! Now I see the plot of the strict constructionists, they want to stop all taxes. Interesting that they don't want to stop all wars, wars that require taxes.

If the Constitution doesn't mention health care...?

Denise Dennis wrote an interesting column about the disruption of a health care meeting moderated by Secy. Kathleen Sebelius and Sen. Arlen Specter, "Right Wingers Wreak Havoc on Philadelphia Town Meeting".

A smaller group opposed to the health care bill kept shouting throughout the meeting interrupting others claiming their right to free speech. Dennis asked one if he wasn't taking the right of free speech from others.

The demonstrators waved copies of the Constitution and claimed health care wasn't mentioned. Let's see, mandatory birth and death certificates aren't mentioned in the Constitution either. Nor are stop lights, paved highways, railroads, airports, air traffic control, nuclear weapons, and waterboarding.

Gosh, I guess we haven't had a Constitutional government since the days of that fine Republican President, Abraham Lincoln.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

New voices keep appearing on Iran

When I looked at Huffington Post this evening, I was surprised to see several items dated 2009-07-31. The first one I read was an article written by Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first president of Iraq after the Islamic Revolution, "Iran at the Crossroads of History: Will This Regime Fall like the Shah's". Among his points are that George W. Bush with his bellicosity strengthened the Iranian regime and Barack Obama with his wait and see weakened the regime. Dictators often depend on real or imagined threats to hold on to power. Another point is that as long as some leaders do not recognize the legitimacy of the coup, the people will continue their resistance and ultimately triumph. The White House's use of "elected leader" to describe Ahmadinejad is not supportive of that.

Another is "Happy Inauguration Day, Dr. Ahmadinejad: Don't Count on Success" by Jasheed K. Choksky. Choksky thinks that the regime is in turmoil and may hang on for a year or two, but it is facing so many divisions that there could be another revolution towards more democracy in a couple of years.

About the only current item I found was The Lede Blog of the New York Times, "Despite Protests, Ahmadinejad Consolidates Grip on Power". Contrary to the title, he may be creating more opposition from the conservatives because of his usurpation of power not given in the Iranian Constitution.

According to Robert Mackey, the editor of The Lede, he will be posting items early on Aug. 5 as he receives them. Aug 5. is the day that Ahmadinejad is supposedly to be confirmed for a second term by the Iranian Parliament.

Monday, August 03, 2009

What's happening on the streets in Tehran?

From most of the news available, it would seem the people of Iran have been quiet while Ayotollah Khameni presents Ahmadinejad with a decree confirming the latter's election to a second term and while a trial of over 100 accused is proceeding.

All is not quiet. The Lede in the New York Times has many photos and videos showing otherwise. See http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/four-years-ago-in-tehran-a-more-united-regime/

Health care may not be terminally ill but some of the terminally ill have no health care

Terry Larkin, an insurance consultant, wrote an opinion piece that appears in today's Star Tribune's business section and will be available for a few days for free, "Health care system is not terminally ill".

He used two examples to prove that we have the "finest health care in the world".

First, he wrote that people from all over the world come to the U.S. to get medical care. As one commenter wrote, it is the rich who come to places like Mayo for specialized health care. Larkin ignored what kind of care the not so rich receive in those countries. Using the same argument, we could say that Mayo has the finest health care in the U.S. because people from all over the country go there. What about the health care for people who can't afford to travel to Rochester or for people whose health insurance doesn't provide for out of system care?

Second, Larkin wrote about the care that Sen. Ted Kennedy received for his latest illness. He enumerated the choices that Kennedy had, including a 4 to 2 decision against Kennedy having a certain procedure. Kennedy went with the 2 and had the procedure. Larkin claimed the "public option" wouldn't allow us ordinary mortals to make that choice.

Larkin ignored two important issues. One, Kennedy is a multi-millionaire and can afford to pay for such choices. Two, do the insurance companies that Larkin consults with allow their policy holders to make such choices?

Even if these insurance companies do allow such choices, would the current health care bills disallow such choices? He forgets that the "public option" is just that, an option. Unfortunately, some current insurance policies don't allow many options, a corporate bureaucracy sees to that.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Wacky words

A cheese maker lost his way. He couldn't weigh his whey.

Don't shed a tear over the death of the bear. He took my Heath bar.

I had another set that I forgot but will probably remember at one in the morning. But I won't go into mourning with a curse that it could be worse.

For more of these words that often come from wise guys, see "Homonym Homilies".

Bill Maher makes a deal with "birthers"

Bill Maher took on those who insist President Obama is not an American on his HBO show.

At the end he offered to show the birthers President Obama's birth certificate when they show him Sarah Palin's high school diploma.

I wonder if the rush is on to get Sarah Palin's high school diploma. Gosh, can I even produce mine? I do know I have my B.A. and M.S. in a bookcase. But if I can't find my copy of Boccacio without turning the house upside down, could I find two little framed (I think framed) documents?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

An explanation of wisdom

At coffee this morning, one fellow mentioned a comedian's line that God gave men just enough blood to fill their brains or their penises, but not enough for both at the same time. Possibly my friend was quoting Robin Williams.

I replied, "That explains why older men are wiser."

Iranians cannot feel like the rest of us

For a very moving essay on what it means to be an Iranian, read
Alien Nation, Kamin Mohammedi, Tehran Bureau, 2009-08-01

It is very hard to see all these pictures from modern Iranian cities and believe that the Iranians live with a medieval government. We may believe that our 2000 and 2004 elections were stolen, but no newspapers were shut down for writing that fraud had taken place and nobody was sent to prison for claiming there was fraud.