Sunday, September 30, 2012

Short cuts can short change you

For readers not familiar with American idioms, let me explain the title.

A short cut is doing something with less time or money than normal.  It comes from taking a shorter route than the usual route, say cutting through the woods rather than following the road.  A short cut now may mean doing something quicker than normal.  Like not putting on a hard hat to save time.

Giving short change is not giving all the change due a payee.  For example, if you present $20 for something that costs $16.10, the seller may give you only $3.50 in change or $2.90, not $3.90.  Short change has now come to mean not getting full value from something.

So, my short cut in building a cabin has cost me more money and time over the years than if I had done it right the first time.

When we built our cabin in Brimson, Minnesota in 1994 or so, we were living in the Twin Cities, a 200-mile, 3-1/2 to 4 hour drive each way.  Each time we did a bit of work, we tried to make as much progress as possible.

We built the cabin on six posts stuck in the ground with the floor about 2-1/2 feet above the ground.  I should have put insulation between the joists before I put the floor on, but I didn't want the insulation to get wet if I didn't have time to put the floor on.  The way to put insulation between the joists is to nail runners along the sides of the joists, drop plywood on the runners, caulk the result, and drop insulation between the joists.

No, Mr. Know-It-All would crawl under the building and put the insulation in from underneath.  No big deal for a fifty-something "kid".

Our cabin floor was warm through most winters, but then the squirrels discovered this wonderful nesting material.  We would see wads all over our yard.  I tried putting plastic screen under the insulation, but the squirrels would rip that off.  I talked about putting 1/4-inch screen underneath, but never put more than a few square feet in.

Finally, there was practically no insulation left, and our floor was always cold in winter.  This spring and summer, I pulled out what was left.  I intended to install new insulation the proper way this fall.  I finally started two weeks ago.

I intended to stuff insulation between the joists and then screw 1/4-inch plywood to support it and protect it from squirrels.

I borrowed a trailer from a friend, went to Menard's to buy all the plywood and a couple of packages of insulation.  As a clerk helped me put the plywood in the trailer, he asked if I wanted to put the spare tire on top to hold the plywood down.  I said no, I have tie-downs.  Mistake one!

When I tried putting my tie-downs on, I could not find a good purchase on the side of the trailer, at least within reach of a single tie-down.  I didn't think to hook two together.  Mistake two!

As I drove the fifty-plus miles to our cabin, I kept looking in the rear-view mirror to be sure the insulation was still there.  At not quite 25 miles, the insulation wasn't there.  The North Star fire station was just ahead and I used that to turn around.  Within a mile of backtracking, I saw the two insulation bundles stacked beside the road.  Some kind person had stopped, picked them up off the road, and put them at the side.  This time I put the bundles in the back of my SUV.  But I didn't count the sheets of plywood; I saw that the top sheet was wedged under one of the back slats of the trailer and that should hold them in place.  Mistake three!

When I unloaded everything at the cabin, I discovered I had only five of the six sheets of plywood.  Hoo, boy!  I drove the twenty-five miles back to where I had lost the insulation,  looking carefully on both sides of the road (lots of tall grass, embankments, and such), as the daylight dwindled.  As I drove, I pondered that I'm probably spending as much in gas as the missing sheet of plywood cost.  I didn't find the sheet.

Tomorrow or soon: Part II - the actual progress of the insulation.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

To my one faithful reader and others

Within an hour of posting a new blog entry, it seems within an hour, at least one person has read that entry.  Whoever you are, thank you!

Unfortunately, I haven't given you or others much to read lately.  That's because I've made my to-do list a bit longer and blogging has taken a back seat.  I originally called this blog "Irregular Blog" because I didn't know how often I would post something.  I guess the name still means something.

One, the fall quarter for University for Seniors has started at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.  I signed up for five classes, but fortunately I was wait-listed for two.  Otherwise, I would have been really full up.

Two, I bought some new toys - an iPhone and an iPod.  From the simple Apple Macintosh "For the rest of us" we have seen the boxes get smaller and the capabilities grow almost exponentially.  It is no longer a simple matter of pulling the computer out of the box, plugging it in, and starting work.  There are settings galore, dozens of features to explore, and a whole lot more to do all you want to do.

Three, I finally found a round tuit to reinsulate the floor of our cabin.  That is a blog entry in itself.  Oh, yes, I don't do much blogging at our cabin because the connection is so darn slow.

There is a bit more on the new toys, but I must go finish installing Skype on the iPad so my wife can use it when she visits our daughter and they can talk to our son in Japan.

So, please keep checking.  You never know when I might post three entries in a day.

Thanks for your readership.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A voice from the 47% who is now in the 53%

Moby, a DJ, singer-songwriter, and musician, wrote a heartfelt analysis about being in the 47%.  All the help he got helped him become quite well-off.  He did it with a rich "uncle" because he had no rich daddy.  See "Mitt Romney Does Not Have the Right to Dismiss Us", Huffington Post, 2012-09-23.

Education - maybe we haven't got the lead out yet

I wonder how many people have considered how a poor environment has caused poor school performance and how the ramifications continue.

Consider these two statements from "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" by David Eagleman.

"The major public health movement to remove lead-based paint grew out of an understanding that even low levels of lead can cause brain damage that makes children less intelligent and, in some cases, more impulsive and aggressive."

"As a child grows, neglect, physical abuse, and head injury can cause problems in mental development."

So, a child grows up impulsive and aggressive and becomes a parent.  The now parent may also neglect and abuse his or her children.  Now these children may have problems in mental development. And so it continues through the generations, some children breaking the cycle, too many not.  "The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, yea, unto the seventh generation."

"But," you say, "lead paint was used everywhere.  Wouldn't all kids have been affected?"  Well, many children had the good fortune to grow up in houses where the paint was well-maintained.  Others had the  bad fortune to grow up in houses in which the paint deteriorated, chipped, and flaked.  If the kids didn't eat some of the paint chips, they might have inhaled some of the dust from the deteriorating paint.

The problem is not to get the "lead" out of "poor-performing teachers" but to get the "lead" out of "poor performing families".  That will take a lot more effort than too many are willing to spend.  And I'm not talking about unwilling teachers.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A bad omen for Obama?

"According to the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal survey … 50 percent of voters favor Barack Obama, while 45 percent plan to vote for Mitt Romney."  See "Could This Man Cost Romney the White House?", Lee Brodie, CNBC, 2012-09-20.

That may look favorable for Obama, but note that some voters "favor" him while others "plan to vote" for Romney.  Will all those who "favor" Obama actually show up and vote?  If history is any guide, there will be lots of no-shows on the Democratic side.

One business group that wants more regulation

In the name of efficiency, one business sector has become inefficient, and that sector would like government regulation to restore efficiency.

The business sector: stock trading.  The inefficiency: run-amok computer algorithms for high-frequency trading, HFT.  There have been several cases where HFT algorithms have caused problems with initial public offerings and set off price-spikes that some firms couldn't handle.  Firms may not put in sufficient checks on certain trades in order to gain speed.

"'Market participants at every level of the trade life cycle reported they are looking to regulators to establish best practices in risk management and to monitor compliance with those practices,' Carol Clark, senior policy specialist at the Chicago Fed, wrote in a summary of the survey's findings."

See "High Frequency Trading: Worse than You Thought", Jeff Cox, CNBC, 2012-09-20.

Next time a newspaper reports that "investors decided" ask yourself do they mean traders and do they mean trading computers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

O ye of little faith!

Someone in the U.S. posted a video uncomplimentary of Mohammed.  Some Muslims in Libya attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador and three other U.S. diplomats.  Now demonstrations and attacks by some Muslims on American interests are happening all around the world where there are a large number of Muslims.  Is this the way to promote Islam as a religion of peace?

The idea of Islam as a religion of peace is something that many American Muslims believe and need in order to be part of their communities.  Unfortunately, attacks like those above work against American Muslims.  Why?  Because there are too many non-Muslim Americans who believe that ALL Muslims are terrorists.  Consider the uproar being made by Rep. Michele Bachmann about U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton having a Muslim aide, Huma Abedin.

When I was a kid a counter to those who called others by derogatory names was "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names cannot hurt me!"  Some Muslims are letting derogatory names hurt them and are breaking other people's bones.

"Allah akbar!  God is great!" shout those demonstrating against the uncomplimentary video.  Do you think a great God would worry about the callous remarks of a petty criminal?  If a great God were concerned with such remarks, wouldn't He do something about it?  If God is not doing anything about some stupid remarks, should you?  There is an old Greek word for the sin of knowing better than the gods - hubris, a form of misplaced pride and conceit.

Before some non-Muslims have their own bit of hubris and conceit about their own religion's tolerance, consider some Christian history.  Early Christian leaders had some really heated debates about what Christianity should be, and many of them branded those who disagreed with them as heretics.  For too many years, the Roman Church with the blessing of monarchs tortured and executed those who they suspected of not being devout Christians.  The Puritans in Massachusetts hung Quakers for preaching in public.  The Ku Klux Klan used the symbols of Christianity and terrorized and murdered blacks for a long list of crimes real and imagined.

The world is getting smaller and more crowded.  If we can't learn to have some tolerance for each other, no god is going to save us from destroying ourselves.

For a good analysis of the larger picture of the long-standing conflict, see "A Dangerous Misperception and Cultural Divide", Alon Ben-Meir, Huffington Post, 2012-09-17.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Be careful about quotes, especially from the web

The choir I sing in will be singing Bobby McFerrin's 23rd Psalm in the near future.  It ends with "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be world without end. Amen."

Hm!  That contradicts the belief of the "End-timers" who believe the end of the world is near, based on their reading of Revelations.

OK, let's do a quick check of the "original" 23rd Psalm. "Psalm 23 'world without end'" gives Bobby McFerrin's version as first and several more later.  The second item is from the burial section of "The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland".  Oops!  Every Psalm listed ends with "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen."  This cannot be part of each of these psalms.  Especially when it it proceeded with "GLORY be to the Father, and to the Son : and to the Holy Ghost;"  The concept of the Trinity had not even been considered at the writing of the Psalms.

A bit more searching gives that this appendage is the "Gloria Patri".  It is also known as the "Minor Doxology".  A doxology is a short hymn of praise.

Interestingly, the original Greek uses a different ending.  The "world without end" dates from Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer, either 1549 or 1552.  Modern usage varies all over, from the Cranmer words to a closer rendition of the original Greek.

If scholars who know ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew can't agree on what the surviving texts contain, how can the rest of be sure what the translations state?

The people know best how to spend their own money! Really?

Yes, we know how to spend our money on food, shelter, and entertainment, but do we know how to spend our money on infra-structure, police and fire, military, regulatory agencies, foreign policy, and basic research?

"Know best how to spend our own money" has been a mantra of the anti-tax, anti-government crowd as if government is just a sinkhole giving money away for no purpose.  They completely ignore that taxes pay for our roads, our sewers, and many other physical features of a civil society.  They ignore that without regulatory agencies a power company could change its rates willy-nilly without warning.  They ignore that without a military, there would be nobody to fight the wars that they claim we should get into.  They ignore that without the basic research into atomic energy that we would not have the nuclear energy that taxes have heavily subsidized.  And if they found this page with Google, they should thank the National Science Foundation, DARPA, and NASA for the grant to Stanford University in 1994 that made Google possible.  See and many other pages.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Corporate Whimsy

Facebook, that time gobbler that so many can't do without and so many hate, is at it again changing the way it works.

Yesterday I posted a picture on Flickr and then wrote a note on Facebook with a link to the picture.  When I clicked return, the picture was showing on my message list.  A few friends commented on it and I saw the picture above their comments.

Today as I scrolled through my list of messages, the picture was gone but the text remained.  I left a comment about it, and one friend said she hadn't seen it before and now she did.

One of the first rules of good human interface is consistency.  If I do a certain thing in a certain set of circumstances, I should be able to get a similar result each and every time.

Facebook is not alone in inconsistent user interfaces.  Microsoft, Apple, and many others confuse users time after time.

Through iTunes I download Wisconsin Public Radio's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" podcasts, receiving two each week.  Suddenly, about four weeks ago I was getting only one.  Last week I got none.  This week I got one.  With a little email help from the TTBOOK host, Jim Fleming, I figured out that iTunes or somebody has decided that I don't need podcasts that I've already downloaded, even if they were from two or more years ago.  TTBOOK does rebroadcast programs and thus republishes the podcasts.  But shouldn't I be the one to decide that I don't want to listen to an old program again?

Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac had programmable macros with an extensive, easily used description for each available function.  Microsoft decided to take macros out in Office 2008.  They said users should write AppleScripts instead.  I'll just say that AppleScript is a byzantine programming language.  Microsoft decided to put macros back in Office 2011, but many old macros don't work or only work erratically.  And the descriptions of the functions are often incomplete.

I'm sure many readers have their own tales of frustration about how software, computers, cars, and customer service departments work.  So many of what we depend on may be produced efficiently, but do we get effective results using them?

Lying with the truth

Several times Republicans have stated that 250,000 small businesses closed last year, the implication being that President Obama's policies were responsible for each and every small business closing.

But why have these small businesses closed?  Let me list the ways.

The owner died or retired.
The owner tried doing too much with too little resources.
The owner did not have enough potential customers.
The owner located in a low traffic area.
The owner did not have the personality to attract and keep customers.
The owner's business model was all wrong.
The owner's landlord would not renew the lease or changed the terms too drastically.
A large corporation moved in too close and drained the small business's customers.
A large corporation provided a service that outmoded the small business's service.

I have no idea what percentage of businesses closed for any of these reasons, but I see examples all the time that have no relation to Obama's policies.

Where are all the DVD stores?  Netflix, RedBox, and streaming have taken many customers away.

Where have all the local pharmacies gone?  Replaced by Walgreens, CVS, Target, and Walmart.

Where are all the camera stores?  Replaced by Best Buy, Target, and Walmart.

I don't care which candidate or party makes some sweeping generalization, but I try to ask at least myself what is the bigger picture.  Are things as bad, or as good, as this or that politician proclaim?

Grover Norquist drowns in his bathtub

Grover Norquist was enjoying a nice soak in his bathtub because he had just drowned government in it.

His timing was unfortunate, because a monster rainstorm due to climate change started while he as in the tub.

The rain came down and down soaking the ground thoroughly.  There was so much water that the sewer mains fell in downstream of Norquist's house.  There was so much water that it started flooding the cracked sewer mains upstream of his house.  The upstream pressure became so great that it started popping sink and tub plugs in houses.  The geyser coming out of Norquist's bathtub drain was so huge that he never got a chance to get out of the tub.

This could have all been avoided if there had been a well-financed government to inspect and repair the aging infrastructure, including the sewers.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Quote of the day: watering the weeds and pulling the flowers

In "The Dow has recovered, but what about 'The Doug?'" 2012-09-03, Jim Hightower wrote:

"[T]oday's corporate and political leaders are wretchedly-bad gardeners – by tending to the moneyed elites and ignoring America's workaday majority, they're watering the weeds and pulling the flowers. Where's that going to lead us?"

One of the ways that this is done is taxing dividends at a lower rate than wages.  If we tax dividends at a lower rate to encourage investment, do we discourage work by taxing labor at a higher rate?  Would anybody get dividends if there weren't people to do the work to generate those dividends?

Maybe I shouldn't complain. I am retired and derive a portion of my income from dividends and capital gains.  But how hard am I working to do that?  As for the dividends, my work consists either of having requested reinvestment by a financial institution or by typing a request to have accumulated dividends transferred to my bank account.

Sure, I'd like to pay less taxes, wouldn't we all?  But if we don't pay taxes, would we have any kind of civil society?

Complaint of "junk science" from a different source

Thankfully, I haven't seen the claim of "junk science" for quite awhile.  "Junk science" is a contradiction.  If it is "junk thinking", it is not science.  If it is science, then it is not "junk thinking".  It was often used by the "right" to disparage results they didn't like.

Now it is used by Jim Hightower as a disparagement of someone whose views he doesn't like: "Todd Akin, a devout worshipper of junk science, is a member of the House Committee on Science."  See "Welcome to the GOP's Theological Nutland", Jim Hightower, 2012-09-04.  Todd Akin is the politician who claimed the bodies of women who have been "legitimately raped" can protect them from becoming pregnant.

It just occurred to me that some people's theological thought has nothing to do with God or with logic.  It is more hubris telling God what they think he or she should have done or should do.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

What is slower than the Postal Service?

Electronic fund transfers!  From one corporation to another!  In days, not hours!

On Tuesday I asked online for the cash balance of my brokerage account and the sales of some mutual fund shares, the proceeds of each to be transferred to my local checking account.  Neither transaction was confirmed until Wednesday afternoon.  My bank account did not show the deposits until eight o'clock Thursday.  About 46 hours after I had made my request, I saw the result.

Two days is what it takes to send in one Netflix DVD and receive the next!  In fact, the time from pickup to confirmation is less than 16 hours.  I am notified of the shipment of the next DVD about noon and receive it before 10 the next morning.  Hm!  With a 12:30 pickup and a 10:00 delivery, that's less than 46 hours!  A two-way transaction is faster than a one-way transaction!

The first is done completely by computers.  The second is done by a lot of hard-working people, both government and corporate.

Oh, yes, the last two DVDs have been from southwestern Wisconsin, not from Duluth.  Unbelievable, a Postal Service truck is faster than corporate computers!

Apple stores – efficiency over effectiveness?

CEO Tim Cook and CFO Peter Oppenheimer "were of the opinion that the stores didn’t generate enough revenues to justify their operating expenses."
"Are Apple employees worried about their jobs?" , Aabha Rathee, Wall St. Cheat St., 2012-09-03

Is anybody really looking at the side effects of the stores even existing?  How many sales are there online because customers know they can go to an Apple Store for more direct help than online?

For example, if I buy a Macintosh online, buy an Apple Care contract, and something goes wrong, can I get timely help online.  Well, I bought one Mac from a local dealer, but took it to an Apple Store because of a problem.  The techie looked at it, gave me a quick fix, checked the battery, and replaced the battery at no charge.  Messrs. Cook and Browett, how many times are similar stories are there like this.  If Apple provides superior technical assistance, how do you measure the benefit to increased sales?  Apple customers pay a premium for superior service.  If you reduce that service, why should customers pay that premium?

It's like an auto dealer cuts back on the number of mechanics because they are not generating enough revenue.  Why aren't they generating enough revenue?  A very large portion of the dealer's customers have bought long-term service contracts; therefore, they pay little or nothing when they bring their cars in.  If the dealer's customers have to wait a long time for pre-paid service, are they going to be so willing to buy their next cars from the same dealer?

You can't run a business as a series of silos with no relation to all the other silos.  A business is more like a chain of gears.  You take one gear out and everything stops.

The economy is doing what?

Many people talk about the "poor economy", but which economy are they talking about?

The business section of the 2012-09-05 Star Tribune had four pieces of contradictory information on the same page.

"Markets mostly down amid gloomy reports on U.S. Economy"

"U.S. auto sales hit three-year high"

"Construction spending dropped in July"

"Home-price index posts strong rise"

But the story on construction spending is mixed.  There was "a big drop in home improvement projects" but "spending on construction of single-famiy homes and apartments increased again".

The real story is that we have a continually changing economy.  Lots of jobs don't even exist anymore or the "efficiencies" have become so great that fewer people are needed to do the work.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Grover Norquist calls 911

Grover Norquist is frying a couple of hamburger patties in his kitchen when some grease spatters and is ignited.  He rushes to his phone to call for assistance.

Scenario One

Grover Norquist calls 911.  He receives a recorded message:

If you require government assistance, please look in Grover Norquist's bathtub.

Scenario Two

Grover Norquist calls his private fire company.  He is given the following list of instructions:

If you are calling about a cat in a tree, please press 1.

If you are calling about smelling gas, please press 2.

If you are calling about a medical emergency, please press 3.

If you are calling about a fire, please press 4. (Grover Norquist presses 4.)

If you are calling about a car fire, please press 1.

If you are calling about a brush fire, please press 2.

If you are calling about a chimney fire, please press 3.

If you are calling about a kitchen fire, please press 4.  (Grover Norquist presses 4.)

He hears the following message:

All our agents are busy.  Please stay online for our next available agent.

After a minute, Grover Norquist hears the following message:

All our agents are still busy.  Please stay online for our next available agent.  Your approximate wait time is five minutes. (This is repeated every minute.)

Finally after ten minutes, he hears in an Indian accent:

"Good evening, my name is Stephanie.  It is my pleasure to assist you this evening.  May I have your name and address?"

Grover Norquist gives his name and address.

"I am sorry, sir, but we have no record of a client named Rover Northlist."

Grover Norquist spells out his name.

"I apologize for getting your name wrong, sir.  My computer is searching for your account."

After a minute, the agent says, "I'm sorry, sir, but we are having a typhoon and our connection to the Internet is slow."

After another minute, the agent says, "I'm sorry, sir, but our records indicate that you have not paid your last two premiums.  We are not permitted to dispatch a crew when a client is in arrears."

Scenario Three

As in Scenario two, but Grover Norquist has paid all his premiums.  After the agent finds his account, she says,  "I'm sorry, sir, but our crew for your town is now at an apartment fire and it appears that they will be there all night.  Would you like me to check with our backup crew?  They are only twenty miles away."