Friday, December 31, 2010

We need to do a makeover of Duluth

In 2007 I wrote an article for the Reader Weekly, "Economic development to beat all economic development" about tearing Duluth down and starting all over again.

As I've been clearing plowed snow off our sidewalk and getting ice out of the sump pump hose, I've been thinking about this again.

Snow plowed from the streets onto sidewalks is an old issue with me.  Suffice it to say that streets widened to accommodate more traffic mean narrower boulevards (tree lawns to some) to store plowed snow.

Much of Duluth has an early 20th century sewer system.  This means that storm water run-off often got into the sanitary sewers and filled the sanitation holding tanks past capacity.

First we had to have a sump pump installed and any basement drainage into the sanitary sewer blocked.  This meant that water that had been put into the sewers was now dumped out on the lawn.  Because Duluth is built on a hill, this meant the water would often run onto the sidewalk causing ice buildup in the winter.

Next we had to have our sanitary sewers from the house to the street replaced because ground water was seeping into them, contributing to the capacity problem.  This also meant that the ground was even more saturated after rains or thaws, and that meant that even more water flowed onto the sidewalk.

Add to this overflow problem that the snow bank acts as a dam and that many sidewalk sections are tilted away from the street, the overflow stays on the sidewalk.  This then means that homeowners need to spend hours each week to ensure that the sidewalks in front of their houses are accessible and safe.

Revisiting the ideas in "Economic Development", when we level Duluth to start again, we should include double sewer lines from houses, one for sanitary waste, one for ground water runoff.  We should rebuild all streets with a minimum of four-foot wide boulevards.  We should rebuild all sidewalks with a slight tilt toward the street, and we should place them higher than both the curb and the boulevard.

I'm sure you can add many more ideas about improving walkability in Duluth, but I'll limit this little essay to dealing with snow and ice.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

War of the words

In response to Germany's Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer suggesting that employees not use foreign words such as "der Laptop", U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has suggested that employees respond to fellow workers sneezes with "Bless you" rather than "Gesundheit".

"Der laptop?  Nein, nein", Deutsches Presse-Agentur as reported by the Star Tribune, 2010-12-30

Hm!  Has somebody started a rumor?  If I go to either or and search for "laptop", I get "Kein Suchergebnisse" - "no search 'whatever'".  Besides, the Star Tribune is not using richtig Deutsche; it should be "Der Laptop?"  Nouns are almost always capitalized in German.

Mein Deutschekunnigheit?  Nicht so gut!  Ich habe zu viel vergessen:(

1968 Letter from Europe

My mother-in-law kept many of our letters from Europe in a scrapbook.  After she died three years ago, my wife kept the scrapbooks.  This week she has been rereading our old letters.  She pointed out to me one I wrote from Basel 29/30 October 1968.

I was in Basel, Switzerland to prepare a demo for a potential Univac customer.  Univac didn't have one of its own computers in Europe yet, and so we borrowed or bought time on customer computers.  For this demo I was working with an 1108 at Sandoz in Basel.  Sandoz is now called Novartis.

I don't remember much of the trip except I was introduced to raclettes, cheese melted on a board in front of a fire.  The German I was working with took me to a restaurant near the bahnhof that specialized in raclettes.  I've had and have made raclettes since then, but none have compared to those at that Swiss restaurant.

And I don't remember if we made the sale for which we did the demo.

Letter to my in-laws, Jean and Fred Smith, 29/30 October 1968

Dear Folks,

I am back in Basel on a four week assignment and back to learning German, but tomorrow or Thursday I go back to Rome for the rest of the year, I hope.  Not quite, we hope to take a two week ski vacation at Christmas time, but in Switzerland.  I tried calling three hotels in Davos yesterday, and found out you have to make your reservations in the spring or in January when you leave, so we will probably spend this year in Italy.

All this travel is not as exciting as it may seem.  As I generally work nights and have to see people during the day it often becomes an eat-sleep-work cycle.  Right now I am writing this while waiting to get on the machine [a Univac 1108 computer].  Hah, just as I finished the last sentence, the machine became free.  Now I am baby-sitting the machine at the console.

The most interesting and frustrating experience of being in Europe is the language problem.  My minimal French, German and Italian gets me throughout quite a variety of situations, but general conversation is a rare and difficult thing.  The missing ingredients are vocabulary and listening ability.  I really think that in the U. S. not enough emphasis is put on foreign language ability and they are are treated as an academic subject.  Throughout most of the world to much importance is given to grammar and not enough to vocabulary.  I always cringe when a grammar author boasts that he only introduces 20 words per lesson.  I have found, especially in Italian, that one can use a grammarian's nightmare of a sentence but still convey the thought if one has sufficient words.  Conversely with a bit of vocabulary and little grammar one can at least get the sense of newspaper stories.  To me the best method would be to have classes using conversation and reading newspapers and magazines.  Tests would be on the things read just as they might be in English lit or History.  (Most Europeans who graduate from high school can speak 2 foreign languages, of course not all finish, but still.)


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We don't have political parties, we have dreaming parties

We have one party that engages in wistful thinking and another that engages in wishful thinking.  One dreams of a time that never was and the other of a time that never will be.

Too many commentators try to make a continuum from one to the other.  What we really need are a political party or two that can define the real problems of here and now and come up with practical solutions for them.  These would not be "moderate" parties, taking a little bit from one side and a little bit from the other.  These would be parties that are interested in governance over grandstanding.

It's happened before in our country, but we are 150 years overdue for it happening again.

Government workers aren't productive?? Try this job!

I haven't taken time to read all the stories about the East Coast blizzard, but there seem to be a lot about the various governments not being prepared.  Do these critics want to pay the taxes necessary to have enough equipment and personnel ready to clear the snow?

The people who clear the snow work harder and longer than most of us would tolerate.  I know it's hard enough to drive a bus for eight hours on dry roads; try running a snow plow with obstacles everywhere you look.

In the case of New York City, they assigned park employees who normally took down trees to drive plows on city streets.  See "Obstacles at Every Turn for Plow Crew", New York Times, 2010-12-29.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Let's get our perspective right on healthy food

My daughter handed me a cellophane bag of chocolate balls as an early Christmas present.  She said they were chocolate-covered cranberries and were half-healthy.  I replied, "You mean cranberries aren't healthy?"

If you liked this anecdote, you might enjoy "Major Food Groups", a spoof piece my wife and I dreamed up ten years ago and was published by the Reader Weekly, then called the Northland Reader.  It still is one of the more popular pages on my website.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"The People" decided what?

In a presidential election year, when a president is selected by the number of electoral votes, many of those who supported the successful candidate say, "The people decided…"

Wait a minute!  Electoral votes do not always coincide with actual votes.  A candidate may win based on electoral votes, but not have gained a majority, or even a plurality of the actual votes.  The people who voted for the other candidate are not "people"?

In a presidential election year, the party of the winning presidential candidate generally gets majorities in both the House and the Senate.  But the other party always gets a large number of votes.  The people who voted for the other party are not "people"?

Then two years later, supporters of the party that was less successful start saying the President and members of Congress are not listening to "the people".  But the President and Congress are listening to "the people" that elected them.

Unfortunately, too often more people didn't bother to vote than voted for either candidate in far too many races.  Does this mean "the people" don't give a damn about either party?

It would be great if "people" would use more precise words in their discussions and writings, but it ain't going to happen.  "People" want to use imprecise words so that they can prevent both their supporters and the opposition from thinking clearly.

Tired of pouring gas on your shoes?

How often have you poured gas into your lawnmower or snowblower, looked down at your shoes or the tires, and seen gas dribbling on them?  Gosh, darn, you tightened the spout on as much as you could.

Somehow, a couple of years ago, after decades of frustration, I came upon a little trick to get the spout on really tight.  Most of the time, that is.

Place the spout 1/4 turn counterclockwise from where you want it, place the screw ring around the spout, hold the spout a bit up and in its turned position, and tighten the screw ring as best you can.  Then without holding the spout, tighten the ring even more.  The spout should turn close to the desired position.

Now, maybe, just maybe, the spout should be the gas can sufficiently tight so that no gas dribbles out.

Of course, all bets are off with these new "safety cans" with their little stops to prevent accidental opening.  Of course, they also deter planned opening.  How can something be safer if users become so frustrated using it that they become careless in some other aspect?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

City to be run like a business

Bowing to critics who say that government should be run like a business, Mayor Les S. Moore has announced several initiatives to follow certain business practices.

Following the lead of orange juice companies who reduced the size of their cartons from 64 ounces to 59 ounces, he has ordered all snow plow drivers to clear only 59/64th the width of city streets.

Noticing that facial tissue now comes in 132-count boxes instead of 200-count boxes, he has ordered the police department reduce its staff from 200 sworn officers to 132.

When Mayor Moore goes grocery shopping, he'll be looking for more examples to apply to city government.

When the city produced its new quarterly to keep citizens informed of the activities of the city government, he followed the lead of the newspapers and had no one proofread the articles.  He was embarrassed to see that a library manager wrote that the library had materials for geneology.

To centralize citizen/customer communication with the city, he has ordered that the phone numbers and email addresses of department heads no longer be published.  Instead, a single 800 number and a single email address,, will be provided.  These both will be handled by a limited staff in India.

Taking a cue from the telecommunications industry, he will offer more and more services electronically with greater and greater speeds.  Each increase will be advertised as with no new taxes in the first six months.

He did balk at following one business example as he thought it would reduce his chances of re-election.  He didn't think he would be very popular if he increased his salary as he cut the number of employees.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The high cost of no new taxes

High cost of no new taxes

In my part of Duluth we had about 12 inches of snow on the night of 2010-12-20.  The city snow plow drivers did a great job of clearing the streets, but the result is heavy packed snow on our sidewalk, too much for this little 5hp 22in snowblower, and definitely too much for my back.

According to city ordinance, home owners are responsible for clearing their sidewalks within twenty-four hours of a snowfall.  However, if the city plows push snow on to the sidewalk, the city is responsible for clearing the sidewalk.

Even if I made a Herculean effort to clear the sidewalk, it would be futile.  When the plows come by again, there will more heavy snow on the sidewalk.

If last year's Christmas week storm is any guide, the city won't clear our sidewalk for at least a week.  Meanwhile, pedestrians of all ages and abilities have to walk in the street; they are taxed for the city not raising taxes.

You really are good at foreign languages

How often have you heard people say, "I never was any good with foreign languages!"  But any of us who read a lot or listen a lot, know lots of foreign words and phrases as part of our own language.

Consider the following:

Oui, non, savoir faire, coup d'état, menu, restaurant, merci beaucoup, la plume de ma tante, père, mère, soirée, bon jour, monsieur, madame, mademoiselle, garçon, parlez vous français

Si, gracias, señor, señora, señorita, taco, burrito, chili, sombrero, serape, fiesta, siesta, madre, padre, muchacho, muchacha, piñata, guerrilla, mesa

Ja, nein, Blitzkrieg, danke, sprechen sie Deutsch, guten morgen, auf Wiedersehen, angst

Da, nyet, troika, glasnost, perestroika, tsar, soviet, sputnik, vodka, tundra

Smörgåsbord, fjörd, tack, Viking, ski, lingon, orienteering, ombudsman, moped

Judo, karate, karaoke, sumo, sushi, tofu, miso, manga, sake, kimono, samurai, futon, tsunami

Si, no, italiano, spaghetti, opera, pasta, forte, piano, ciao, arrivederci, buon giorno, vino

I bet you know over 90% of these words and can identify each of the groups.

Interestingly, Apple's TextEdit only flagged five words as not in its dictionary; these were burrito, chili, serape, nyet, and fjörd.  TextEdit was happy when I spelled fjörd as fjord. In fact, TextEdit insisted on changing it as I typed.  Microsoft's Word is a bit fussier; it didn't recognize any of the words that contained diacritical marks, like in garçon, señor, and smörgåsbord.

See, you're also smarter than a computer.  You could recognize all the words.

Next time somebody says they have never been good at whatever, reply that they just haven't spent enough time and interest learning that whatever.

Ciao, amici miei!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Forget Ranked Choice Voting, Try Ranked Vote Reporting

Many people tout Ranked Choice Voting as a solution to the gridlock of the so-called two-party system.  Others say it will be to confusing to voters.  One thing I do know is that it requires charter and constitutional changes.  Like many elections of candidates, charter changes will probably not be brought about by a majority of eligible voters.

We can put a better perspective on election results with a simple election administration change.  Each precinct, county, and state should publish the totals of registered voters who did not vote and include it in a ranked report.

For example, assume a precinct with 1,000 registered voters of whom only 600 showed up.  290 voted for A, 250 voted for B, and 60 voted for C.  A is declared the winner because A received the plurality of votes.  And A's party will be dancing until midnight celebrating the victory.

But, let's consider the true count.  400 voters didn't care to show up at all.  If the precinct had to include these un-cast votes in its report, we might see something like this:

400 (40%) no vote cast
290 (29%) Candidate A
250 (25%) Candidate B
  60  ( 6%) Candidate C

Even if Candidate A had received 310 votes or a majority of the votes cast, the report would still show Candidate A coming in second to "no vote cast".  Not exactly an overwhelming victory; Candidate A did not get a "mandate".

Actually, we don't even need an administrative change.  If media started reporting results in this manner, it would have the same effect.  Most large media organizations have access to this data.

If this idea really took hold, we might get one or more of the following.  Candidates would work to increase turnout; candidates would work to widen their appeal; additional candidates may run because they would see the "popular" candidates as not so popular.

Social Security checks didn't stay the same; they went down

This week we received our Social Security Benefit statements for 2011.  As predicted the "monthly amount" stayed the same, but the deductions went up!

Medicare medical insurance went up $74 per month and the Medicare prescription drug plan went up $4.60.  So, we'll each have $78.60 less every month to spend in the local economy.

We do have other sources of income, but we have saved those to use for big ticket items, like property tax.  For us, this decrease is an inconvenience; for others it can be a major blow.

I sent the above to Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and to Rep.-elect Chip Cravaack.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Duluth Digs: Hope for shoveled walks??

Email to Don Ness, Mayor of Duluth, on Duluth Digs, an initiative to "encourage people to do a little more to keep sidewalks clear."

As you know from some of my Reader Weekly articles on walking in Duluth, I'm all for keeping sidewalks clear for pedestrians.  I applaud you and Duluth Digs for attempting to make Duluth a more walkable city, but I'm pessimistic it's going to happen for two reasons.

First, wherever there is a narrow boulevard, which is anything less than four feet, snow plows are going to dump a huge amount of snow on the sidewalks.  This snow is not the light, fluffy, new-fallen snow, but heavy wet gunk.  It is not easy to lift.  Because of this, many people don't even attempt to shovel their walks.

We were away during one of the big snows last winter.  When we came back our sidewalk was covered with three feet of ice and snow.  It was even hopeless to do with a snowblower.  It was many days before a crew was able to get to our block to clear this.

Second, the mandated sump pumps are putting a lot of ice on the sidewalks.  With the many rains, the ground was saturated and the pump water continued on to the sidewalks.  When the temperature dropped, the standing water became ice.  I did sand it, but given its unevenness, it was no fun to walk on.

I don't know how many hours spread over many days I've spent chipping at this ice, some of it two inches thick.  Only today did I manage to have a strip less than two feet wide along our portion of the sidewalk.

I have just about given up walking in Duluth in the winter or after dark.  In winter because the uneven surfaces lead to various muscle problems; after dark because of all the overhanging branches and protruding shrubbery.

I know in your heart you would like to follow in the footsteps of a former mayor of Eden Prairie.  When asked why her city was successful in attracting businesses, she responded that they made Eden Prairie a nice place to live.  Sadly, doing so today is considered a cost rather than an investment in a benefit.

"Talking about walking about",
"In-Your-Face while Walking",
"Save energy! Encourage Walking!"
"Save energy! Promote Walking!"

Friday, December 10, 2010

Who took votes from whom?

In 2000, many Democrats said that Ralph Nader took votes from Al Gore in Florida making it easier for George W. Bush to become president.

In 2010, Tony Sutton, chair of the Republican Party in Minnesota, said that Tom Horner, Independence Party candidate took votes from Tom Emmer, allowing Mark Dayton to become governor of Minnesota.

Maybe both complaints are misdirected.

In either case, have they considered that many of the people who voted for the "minor" candidate might not have even voted if they hadn't had a third choice?

In the 2010 Minnesota governor case, has anyone considered that Mark Dayton might have "taken votes" from Tom Horner?  Maybe many voters would have voted for Tom Horner, but they didn't want to "throw their votes away" and allow Tom Emmer to become governor.  So, maybe they voted for Mark Dayton because they thought he was a better choice than Tom Emmer.

Unless we interview in depth every single voter, we'll never really know their motivations.  It really is presumptuous to assume to know the intent of unknown voters.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Would today's Republicans support Abraham Lincoln?

When I read Wired's "Republican Congressman Crowdsource Attack on Science", I thought of all the projects they oppose without even weighing costs and benefits.  The crowdsourcing is an attempt to get the general public to expose "waste" in federal spending, starting with the National Science Foundation.  They essentially take an apparently frivolous aspect of a project without looking any deeper into what benefits might be gained.  They have started YouCut Citizen Review.  Maybe the first cut in the federal budget should be to disband YouCut?

Would today's Republicans support Abraham Lincoln's push for a transcontinental railroad?  Especially with the huge outlay of bonds to fund it?  That would not lead to a balanced budget.

Would today's Republicans support Abraham Lincoln's handling of the Civil War?  Although today's Republicans are big on spending on the military (without any meaningful analysis of the benefits), they are also big on states' rights, the major argument leading to the Civil War.

Those special places

Today Jim Heffernan republished "That Special Christmas Place" on his blog; it was originally published in 1983.

It made me think of some of the places where I lived that don't exist anymore.  I personally saw that the house I lived in from 1947 to 1951 is no more as well as some of its neighbors.  From Google Street view I saw that an apartment building I lived in from 1951 to 1953 is gone and that a drugstore that we lived over in the early 1940s is gone.

They weren't the best houses in the world, but they were home.  I have no ownership of them and few would value them as a place the "famous" Mel Magree lived.  However, that there is a vacant lot or a parking lot where I once lived does leave a vacant spot in my heart.  I think this is so because I can't put my hands on any pictures I may have of these places and that my descendants can't go to the places as they are in my memory.

See also "Often you really can't go home".

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Don't worry, insurance will pay for it!

How often have you heard this remark?  This leads many people to see a doctor for even small problems that may go away on their own.  This also leads many providers to not be cost conscious of the work they do, at least not as cost conscious if the patient was paying out of pocket.

People rarely ask the follow-up question: who pays for insurance?  The answer is that we all do, directly or indirectly.  If we pay the premiums directly, it comes out of our pockets.  If our employer pays the premiums, its money that could go into our pocket instead or its money that has to come from the price of the goods or services sold.  If the government pays, it comes out of our taxes.

Since there are so many payers of health care, there are no real controls on the costs.  So, no controls, no limit on costs.  Up and up they go.

For some more thoughts on this, see "What Happened to U.S. Health Care Costs?" Megan McArdle, The Atlantic, 2010-12-01.

She has an interesting graph showing how U.S. health care costs diverged dramatically from the costs in other countries.

We're exceptional 'cause we say so

Thomas Friedman wrote a spoof cable from the Chinese Embassy back to Peking; it would be hilarious if it weren't so sadly true.  You can find it at "From WikiChina", New York Times, 2010-12-01.

I've always found "exceptionalism" a bit arrogant.  It's kind of grade-schoolish; "my whatever is better than your whatever!"  Does it really matter?  Can't our whatevers be our whatevers without having to be better than somebody else's?

See "I Live in the Best House in the World".