Monday, November 30, 2009

An apology to my loyal readers

I'm sorry that the 8-13 people who regularly check this blog haven't found much here lately.

The cause is threefold.

The older I get, the longer my to-do list gets. Sometimes it's what-I-please; sometimes it's haftas. I do know my desk is overflowing with unfiled papers.

We've been spending a lots of time on outside activities, including trying to get more time in at the fitness center. And we've been spending three to four days a week at the cabin. After a day of moving stuff to the chipper and stuffing the chipper; I just want to read a book. Of course, the s-l-o-w internet speed doesn't help.

The muse has left me because I've ignored her. The text file in which I draft each month's blogs is filled with snippets of ideas waiting to be developed. I look at a snippet, write a sentence or two, and get stuck!

I make no promises, but I will try harder to keep this blog interesting to you.

Meanwhile, I promise that this sunset picture is not indicative of a sunset of this blog.

I took this Friday afternoon on our way back from the cabin. It is from Hwy 44 south of the cut through the moraine south of the tracks. As an indication of this not being a sunset of this blog, we went back to our cabin on Sunday and came back today.

As they say on Radio Nations Unies, "Merci pour vôtre fidelité."

As they say on Radio Nations Unies, "Merci pour vôtre fidelité." I'm sorry I can't promise, "Au demain, même heure, même fréquence."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Real values from a real conservative

I enjoy reading David Brooks columns in the New York Times because he often makes sense out of all the conflicting ideas. He is conservative in the non-ideological sense; he doesn't take automatic positions because those are the currently popular "conservative" "values". He looks at ideas from several perspectives; he weighs the good and bad of proposals both now and on a longer time scale.

A good example is his column "The Values Question", New York Times, 2009-11-24.

The values in question are caring for the vulnerable in our society. If we care for the vulnerable, then we may not have resources to invest in other things we as a society want. On the other hand, do we want to live in a society that does not care for the vulnerable?

To me, this is real conservatism, even compassionate conservatism.

His apostasies from "true conservatism" include that to pay for the costs of some of these programs "the Democrats have admirably agreed to raise taxes."

A computer screen is not a piece of paper

Many companies and organizations are making their documents available online. This can save many costs, including postage, paper, and printing. Unfortunately, they provide to their computer readers exactly the same format as they would in print. In fact, they often use the PDF files that go to the printer. Sorry, but my computer screen is not 11 inches high. And it is very difficult to read two columns meant to be on an 8.5x11 page.

I just found it impossible to read one document concerning Medicare supplemental insurance. The tables for comparison were spread across facing pages, that is a 17x11 document. The PDF file had the facing pages one under the other. I gave up trying to read it; we asked for the printed booklet.

Please, all of you information providers, please redesign your printed documents to be easily readable on computer screens. Have the information flow on seven to eight-inch high pages. Have all the information that belongs in a block on the same page, not at the end of one and the top of the next. Hire some good designers who understand these things.

If you do, you may find you have even less demand for the paper copies of your documents.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

How many people have you forgotten?

A few weeks ago an executive of an alumni association of a school I attended left a message when he was in town. He later sent me email about getting together and thought we had an affinity because we received degrees close together in the same subject. I responded that I was not interested.

He responded that was OK and asked if I had contact with any of my classmates. I replied that I had only sporadic contact with a couple of people who were in the same high school as I was and started at that college together.

That got me thinking about all the people we've known throughout our lives whom we've lost contact with and have even forgotten. Sometimes if we drop an old acquaintance a line they may or may not respond.

I sent an email several years ago to a classmate who had gone on to be president of the college in which we started together, congratulating him on something of other. He never responded. I sent an email to a classmate at another school who I often hung out with at the student union. He was a professor at another school. He never responded.

Of course, there are a few who have responded but the follow-up is sporadic. I worked with people in various groups for several years. I can't remember the names of some in the group. Of those whom I remember, the correspondence is often a few emails about someone who died and then it lapses.

I think some people make an almost mystical attachment to old acquaintance, especially from high school or college. But it is not shared by others. Often I think the staff of puts more enthusiasm into people getting involved than many members of any given class. I know members of my high school class rarely post anything on the message board. I know that I've posted a couple of news items and have had no follow up messages.

One of the most poignant was my memory of a dance. When my date for that dance came to the registration table at a high school reunion, I said, "Ah, my favorite date!" She looked at me and said, "Who are you?" When I gave my name, she said, "Oh!" and walked away.

I think you can get a good sense of how few people share an attachment to their past by looking at donations by percentage of graduating classes in alumni magazines. I've rarely seen it over forty percent. Or if you are interested in family history, how many relatives are even willing to respond to requests for the names of other relatives?

The choir I am in will soon be singing a song with the words, "The past is behind…" I think this is the attitude of many people. They are focused on either the here and now or the future.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Congress and the Chamber of Commerce gave the Chinese my lunch!

Somewhere Thomas Friedman wrote about other countries are going to be eating our lunch because we are standing pat on education or technology. Here is one way it is happening.

Congress and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been dragging their feet on global warming and clean energy. The Chamber has claimed that doing something and investing in green energy will cost jobs.

Guess what? The foot dragging is costing jobs. China is already outstripping the U.S. in lower and lower cost of producing solar cells, wind turbines, and so on. Not just because of lower labor costs, but because of scale and improving products and techniques. Already several U.S. green energy companies have moved production to China, and the largest Chinese solar company has a large contract with the U.S. government.

See "The new arms race", Robert Kennedy Jr., Huffington Post, 2009-11-19, "The New Sputnik", Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 2009-09-27, and "Who has the right priorities?", a blog of mine in February.

I think China is putting up a big smoke screen, pardon the pun, about being a developing country that needs the dirty energy to catch up to the developed countries. The Chamber has fallen right into the Chinese trap. The Chinese are going to develop right past us while we hobble ourselves with old technology.

Thanks, Congress and the Chamber, for giving away our lunch.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Well, our well is not well!

In 1999 we had a well dug at our cabin in Brimson. It was a really rainy fall and the digging was delayed a bit. But when the well was dug did we have water! It even passed the lab test. We only had to lug enough water to prime the pitcher pump.

We had plenty of water for the sauna, for dishes, for drinking, and for putting out campfires.

Then the water started tasting bad. We dumped liquid bleach down it, pumped and pumped to dilute the bleach, and tested the water with something from Menard's. We were fine again.

Then the water was bad again. Repeat.

Then we had some very dry years. No water. Then we had some wet years. We only used the water for washing but not drinking.

Then we had some dry years again. Finally last year we could get some water again. But it was greenish or grayish. Lots of sediment. We only used it for putting out campfires. Same thing this year. I dumped some bleach down, but then I couldn't get any water out at all.

I checked the flapper leather and decided it was shot. In fact, it broke when I took it out. Today I bought and installed a new flapper leather. Still no water. I dug around in a shed and found a new cup for the plunger. It was a tight fit but eventually the pumping got easier. The primer water didn't disappear as fast, but still no water came up.

OK, let's stick a tape down. At 23 feet, 8 inches from the top of the pipe the tape hit bottom. As I reel the tape it feels damp, but that's only condensation because the ground is colder than the air. Up comes the tape: 6 feet, just moist; 4 feet, just moist; 2 feet, just moist; 1 foot, it's wet!! But we need more than three feet of water in the well to pull up any.

Drat! I guess we can only hope for a snowy winter with a slow melt.

I have a suspicion that the pressure of the well reservoir opened up the vein on the downstream side, and so the well drains faster than it did when it was first dug.

I guess we should have spent more money and had a drilled well. But the only driller we knew about at that time charged $60/foot, minimum 100 ft.

Oh, well, between my allergies and the slow internet connection there, we don't go up more than two days at a time. We can bring all the water we need in the SUV.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dentistry and the economy

Today I got a new crown in my mouth, learned something about modern dentistry, and had a reinforcement of an idea on the economy.

I went to Lake Dental in Duluth today to have a bad tooth replaced. Instead of putting dental putty over the area, holding it until it set, sending the impression out to a lab, and having me come back another day, the dentist made the crown while I waited.

He wheeled a cart smaller than an airline beverage cart next to the chair, waved a "magic" wand over my teeth to take a three-dimensional picture of my teeth, manipulated the image as I looked, highlighted and improved the bad tooth, and clicked somewhere to start the making of the crown.

While the automatic process was going on, he prepared the site of the bad tooth for the crown.

He later brought out the crown, put it in temporarily to check fit, took it out to buff it, and put it back in. He ground off any sharp edges I described and made the bite better.

When he held up a mirror for me to see the result, I could see almost no difference. The real teeth are a bit more translucent at the edge.

The total time was less than two hours.

What does this have to do with the economy?

My father, a high-school dropout, became a dental prosthetic technician, probably with on-the-job training. He later started his own company out of his basement, Crown Postal Lab. He received impressions in the mail, made the crowns, and mailed them back to the dentists who ordered them. This means the orders took a minimum of four days, especially since my dad had to go into town to mail the packages. He did excellent work; I have a pile of letters of appreciation from dentists when he retired.

Now a computerized machine can do the job in less than two hours.

How many other jobs have become outmoded because of better techniques or machines. Does anybody earn a living ditch digging? No, contractors want people trained to operate back hoes. Even mental jobs have changed drastically. When I started programming, a mathematics degree was not even required. The level of skills now wanted even exceed what was expected when I gave up on programming.

The basic problem of the economy is not so much that it is "bad" or "slow" but that it is changing faster than people can adapt. There are too many people who can do the jobs that are no longer needed and too few people to do the jobs that are needed. It was not helped by the brain drain towards the financial industry to create "products" out of thin air. Now too much money has gone to rescue these "wizards" and not enough is available to train people for the goods and services needed for a solid economy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More about being a psychiatrist than a Muslim?

I don't normally read Gary Kohls' column in the Weekly Reader, but the headline for his column this week caught my attention - "The Fort Hood Murders/Suicide and the Taboo Question", Reader Weekly, 2009-11-12.

Kohls proposition is that modern psychiatrists rather than talk with their patients in depth prescribe too many psychotropic drugs. These drugs can often lead to delusional, self-destructive behavior. Worse yet, some psychiatrists use these drugs themselves. Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan's behavior prior to and on the day of the killings reflects many of the symptoms of psychotropic drug use. Kohls claims that many of the shootings over the past decade have been related to psychotropic medications.

Kohls cites "Drug-Induced Dementia: A Perfect Crime" by Dr. Grace E. Jackson and "The Fort Hood Shooter: A Different Psychiatric Perspective" by Dr. Peter Breggin, Huffington Post, 2009-11-08.

Kohls doesn't write it but Dr. Breggin does, "… Major Nidal Malik Hasan was driven by religious ideology."

Which came first, the ideology or the drug-induced delusions? Was the delusional behavior overlooked because of "political correctness" in the Army?

BTW, I've noticed "political correctness" in news reports, "the alleged shooter". For crying out loud, if two cops are shooting at a guy running loose with a gun, how can he be an "alleged shooter"?

Dr. Breggin writes that too many Army psychiatrists are nothing but pill-pushers who are letting soldiers into combat by suppressing their symptoms and creating greater problems for them in the field.

Then Dr. Breggin reduces his own credibility by touting his book on "How to Live Like Our Heroic Founders". Not that some of them didn't live exemplary lives some of the time, but…

Whatever the biases and credentials of those commenting on the Fort Hood case, it should get more attention than some media coverage and a military or civil trial. Organizations and professions need to look long and hard at their practices.
This case should get more attention than some media coverage and a military or civil trial. Organizations and professions need to look long and hard at their practices.

Friday, November 13, 2009

If you consider your course just, will your means be wise?

"When you once describe a venture as a holy war you surrender all capacity to judge honest alternatives." - Jamail Tabari, Arab archaeologist, character in "The Source" by James Michener. This was published in 1965.

Tabari was describing the blunder of the Crusaders assuming that Arabs were part of the "enemy". The Arabs wanted to form an alliance with the Crusaders against the Turks. The Crusaders saw the Arab clothes and slaughtered the "enemy", even those who were Christian.

I also thought of "When will they ever learn" as the title of this blog entry.

Bush invades Afghanistan without many Pashto-speaking troops and Iraq without many Arabic-speaking troops. Did he really understand what people on the ground really wanted? He thought of himself as a liberator; they thought of him as an invader.

Jihadists wage war against those wherever who don't agree with them. Are they any different than the Crusaders massacring Arab Christians? Or George Bush invading countries he doesn't understand.

Where are the Crusaders? Where are the Mamalukes? Where will the Jihadists be in one hundred years? Where will the United States be in one hundred years? I don't think either will achieve its supposed goals by then. And each will be replaced by other antagonists on their own "holy wars".

When will they ever learn?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Amazing View of Earth

We are all familiar with the picture of the blue planet, a full daylight view of Earth as seen from space. Another amazing picture is a less than "quarter-earth" as seen by Rosetta, the comet hunter launched by the European Space Agency.

For an image, see either "Comet Hunter's Last Look at Earth is Haunting" at or the European Space Agency's posted copy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Art imitating life or life imitating art?

Last week, Zoe of the comic strip Baby Blues asked for and got a pair of pink cowboy boots. She was so delighted with them that she even tried wearing them in the bathtub.

I had never even heard of pink cowboy boots until today. At UMD I saw a student wearing them.

Did Zoe get them because they had become popular, or did the student get them because Zoe got them?

My wife informed me that pink clothing had become popular in support of the fight against breast cancer. When I typed "breast cancer" and "pink ribbon" into Safari's Google panel, it suggested "breast cancer pink ribbon merchandise". Following through on that search, Google found over 512,000 items!

My wife said that some of these merchants contribute some of their proceeds to breast cancer causes.

What's that saying about Venus and Mars?

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Besides all the press coverage about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I had another indication about a week ago. I was getting at least one hit a day on my Reader Weekly article, "Berlin Wall", first published just after the tenth anniversary of the fall.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Spending can be saving

Many want to cut government spending, sometimes even if would save money. The AARP Bulletin has a couple of good articles that highlight this problem.

See "Criminals Bilk Medicare of billions each year" online, "Busting Medicare Fraud" in print, November 2009.

Four years ago Congress turned down a request for $300 million to track down Medicare fraud. An inspector general said every dollar spent doing so would return $17. Hmm, so not spending $300 million cost $4.8 billion (300 x (17-1)). Million wise, billion foolish?

If crooks bilk Medicare, it's bad, but we don't want to spend the money to catch them. If businesses bilk Medicare, it's OK because these businesses contribute to our campaigns.

Medicare is being invoiced for wheel chairs on average four times the cost paid by suppliers. "Congress blocked attempts to impose competitive bidding." Hmm, competition is good for schools but not medical suppliers. See "The Case of the Expensive Wheelchair". Gosh, I thought it was bad that my daughter was charged twice the amount for contact lenses that the ophthalmologist paid. I wasn't supposed to know this, but I saw the invoice as the receptionist took the lenses out of the shipping container and put them in a package for my daughter.

Arguments for new political parties

I've had in my notes for a week a couple of articles about this year's elections, but haven't taken the time to comment on them. This morning a change of plans had me staying at home, and I took the time to catch up. Catching up included scanning the New York Times web site for articles of interest. The first I chose was "Paranoia Strikes Deep", by Paul Krugman, New York Times, 2009-11-09. When I started to write a note about it, I rediscovered the two older opinion articles and the three seemed to tie together.

Ross Douthat is now the resident "conservative" at the New York Times, David Brooks apparently not being conservative enough. However, Douthat is not a conservative in the current sense, but an older, more respectable sense. Instead of saying no to anything "liberals" propose and adhering strictly to a set of conservative "principles", he says, "Wait a minute, let's think about this" and looks at issues from many perspectives.

Last week Douthat wrote "Three's Company", about the governor's race in New Jersey and the Congressional race in New York. He praised the "spoilers" for shaking things up. He wrote that we need more third parties to break up the corruption of one-party states (both red and blue) and the inertia caused by an intransigent minority. He hoped that new local parties would emerge that would address local issues locally rather than along national fault lines.

David Brooks, "What independents want", New York Times, 2009-11-06, wrote that independents want stability. Independents are moving to the right because they don't see government solving the problems that affect their lives. This should not be seen as a ray of hope for Republicans except in that independents will most likely give less support to Democrats. Brooks didn't write it, but I wonder if too many independents stay home when they are unhappy rather than vote against the party in power. I wonder what would happen if these unhappy independents voted with blank ballots instead of staying home. Or better yet, if a new moderate party arose that promised more stability.

Paul Krugman wrote that the paranoiacs have essentially taken over the Republican Party. Newt Gingrich is now a voice of moderation but he has no power. The power resides in, surprise, the media - Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin. The result will be that we have "a rump party with no interest in actually governing" but enough power to prevent anybody else from governing.

I think Douthat is on to something. Instead of looking for new parties to start at the top around some popular figure like Colin Powell, we need to have parties start around local and state issues. Jesse Ventura did it once; can someone else do it with more pragmatic issues. "Rest assured", we really do need more choice in politics.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Paying another generation's way goes both ways

"Making the young pay for health care", Michael Gerson, Washington Post, 2009-11-03, claims that the young are footing the bill for the health care of the old.

I would not call this a conservative argument against health care, but a simplistic view of transactions. It reduces all transactions to a willing buyer and a willing seller with no side effects (externalities). Very few transactions fit this description.

Most transactions have ripple effects that move through a community and even through an entire society. If I trade a vehicle in for a newer vehicle, an unknown seller now has a buyer for an unwanted car and an unknown buyer has a vehicle that he or she can afford. If I buy a new vehicle, I have indirectly created jobs for those who build vehicles.

Michael Gerson implies that the young are getting a raw deal because they are paying for the health care of older people who get sick more often. But he ignores many major benefits the young get from older people. Who paid for the roads, the bridges, the public buildings, the schools, and on and on that the young enjoy today? It would be impossible for the young to pay for these because they didn't have the money to do so or weren't even born yet.

How often have you heard a senior grouse about paying taxes for schools because he or she doesn't have children in school? But if seniors and other adults don't pay for schools, how are young people going to get an education to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, and on and on to provide services for older people?

So many transactions are of the "pass it on" variety. Many people don't expect tit for tat for small courtesies. Rather than accepting payment for helping a stranger, they request that the helped person pass it on by helping somebody else another time.

This is the actual situation of inter-generational payments. The old pay for the education of the young; the young pay for the health care of the old.

Besides, taking care of the elderly sets an example for future generations when the young become the elderly. Child to parent: I'm going to treat you just like you treated Grandma.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Online frustration in covering my financial butt

When I wrote about just happening to have my checkbook when I picked up my new chipper, I didn't mention that the necessary amount was not in my account ("Prepared for the unprepared"). Since I was not prepared to pick up the chipper, I hadn't moved money from savings to checking. Denny's said not to worry as they wouldn't deposit my check until Monday.

However, I did worry. What if I forgot or had something else to do? As soon as I had a fire going in the cabin and as soon as I ate my lunch, I set up my computer and accessed my bank. Magree's first law of computing struck! See "The tortoise and the hare of the Internet" and "Magree's first law of computing".

Ten minutes after logging onto my bank account, I was on the page to move money between accounts. Two minutes later I was able to click "Submit", but the confirmation page never came up. I tried another browser and after seven minutes I was able to click "Submit". This time I got a confirmation.

Twenty minutes to do something that would only take two minutes at faster speeds. The irony is that the bank's pages are not very complicated. Could it be that my rural telephone line has lots of noise and it takes multiple times for any particular request to make it through? A couple of years ago I didn't have these kinds of problems. Could it be the "improved" web sites are the problem?

Whatever, with all I like to do on the web in the evenings, it certainly decreases my willingness to stay overnight often.

Monday, November 02, 2009

I didn't have a clue about a clueless movie

Last night we watched "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World". We kept wondering just what was going on as it went along. My wife gave up half way through, but I stuck it out to the end, wondering why I kept watching.

It was only when it was over that I realized it was poking fun at people who are clueless, including the star and writer, Albert Brooks. Brooks, the character, tries very hard to move his shtick of poking fun at comedy to a land that never saw that kind of comedy. His Indian assistant thinks very highly of him; others completely misinterpret his actions, including governments.

Only two characters criticize Brooks' style in the light of what most comedians do, but even these two characters seem clueless in other circumstances. Only one character really seems to know what he is doing, and his motives are rather sinister geopolitically. Clue: the Pakistani "comedians" didn't seem to be comedians to me.

Unfortunately, it is only on reflection that I understood the movie. Others didn't seem to have the patience. It grossed less than ten percent of its cost. I realized the film was about all kinds of cluelessness in many cultures. People act on their biases rather than getting to know others. That realization almost makes me want to watch it again with that understanding.

If you would like to read more about "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World", see and read some of the user comments.