Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Another independent loses to the chains

All but one or two independent pharmacies are left in Duluth,  all the others have closed in the face of Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, and other big box stores.

Happily, local breweries are flourishing.

Sadly, there is only one independent new-books bookstore left, all the others are used books only.

Happily, independent restaurants seem to be popping up and flourishing.

Sadly, independent coffee shops are losing to the chains.  The latest is Bixby’s in the Mount Royal Shopping Center.  It had been around before we moved to Duluth in 1999.  This fall, the latest owners were featured in a neighborhood newspaper.  The owners were optimistic even with a Caribou and a Starbucks within five minutes walk away.

Today, when I went to Bixby’s, there was a sign on the counter that it would close on January 1.  Although the staff was being cheerful to the customers, I think I heard a bit of sobbing from at least one of them.  Consider that the staff were mostly college students who had to work to keep up with their bills.  Losing a job in the middle of the school year is a bit hard to take.

I could go to a coffee shop/restaurant on our block, but that doesn’t give me much of a walk.  I could go to an independent pizza shop/restaurant in the same building as Bixby’s for coffee, but it just doesn’t seem like a coffee shop.  I don’t think it would be a place where we would stop for coffee for the trip to Brimson.

I guess I can’t complain too much because I didn’t go to Bixby’s as much as I used to.  Two of my coffee buddies died and the other moved out of town.  Plus, as I’ve gotten older I’ve walked the mile to Bixby’s less frequently, often wimping out because of rain or snow.  I didn’t drive there much either because the whole point was the exercise and the comradary.

Big-ga boxes, big-ga boxes, all made of ticky-tacky, all-a look the same!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ghosts of Christmases Past

Our saddest Christmas was after a trip to Japan.

We escorted my wife’s mother on a multi-stage trip from Ontario to Japan and back to visit our son and his wife, new-born daughter, and many Japanese relatives.  I spent so much time crammed into an airline seat that I didn’t want to ever fly again.  Although Grandma at 92 didn’t have a lot of stamina for long walks, she greatly enjoyed the sites and the people.

Near the end of the trip, she awoke with jaw pain.  Our son took her to a hospital where she was diagnosed with a heart problem, but she was cleared for the return flights to Canada.

After she was home she had more heart problems.  She was hospitalized, had surgery that wasn’t successful, and slowly declined, dying at ten Christmas morning.

Almost all of our other Christmas celebrations have been joyous occasions in many different  settings.

My earliest memories are great dreams looking at toy catalogs, seeing the train layouts in the department stores, and visits to Santa.

About Santa, I was Santa once at Mariner Mall.  Never again.  I never lied so much in my life. “I would like a Britney Spears…”  “I’ll see what we can do about that.”

Several of our Christmases were spent at ski resorts.  Twice with Club Med in Misurina, Italy, once in Kitzbühel, Austria, and once in Big Sky, Montana.

We’ve had many Christmases with a houseful of guests.  It always seemed that everybody was sitting in front of the fireplace, eating sweet rolls, and waiting to open presents.  That is, everybody, except an adult male.  We had to wait for whoever it was that year to get up, shower, and shave before we could proceed.  Was I irritated on the kids’ behalf or my own?

When we lived in Sweden, we picked up two winter solstice traditions: Sankta Lucia and julbord.

We had a Luciafest at work in Stockholm.  One year I was appointed Stjärnpojke (Star boy), the guy with the pointed hat who was an attendant to Sankta Lucia.  After singing a round of Sankta Lucia, we had glögg and princess torta.  Glögg is a potent mixture of wine, vodka, raisins, and spices.  Princess torta is a layer cake with whipped cream and custard between alternating layers and green marzipan covering the top and sides.

Julbord means Christmas table and is a variant of a smörgåsbord.  No, it is not an all you can pile on your plate pig-out.  It is a five course meal where you take certain selections for each course.  You can repeat a course if you like.  And have all the beer and snaps you want. (Snaps is akvavit, vodka, and their cousins.)  We had a julbord for many years, but have given it up as too much fuss.

Another Christmas tradition that has succumbed to “too much fuss” is fruitcake.  I am insulted whenever anyone refers to fruitcake as a doorstop.  People looked forward to the fruitcake I made based on a recipe that my mother had found.  One of the secrets is quality ingredients.  You can find the recipe at “Fruitcake: Doorstop or Holiday Treat”.

We have given up on gift exchange in our family.  We became too predictable: sweatshirts and t-shirts with funny logos or books.  I like each of my sweatshirts but the pile threatens to fall off the shelf each time I pull one out.  Many of the books are interesting, but I think most of us have only dabbled in some of them.  I know I have one by a very famous author sitting on the desk at our cabin that I keep telling myself to read a few more pages of.

For awhile, I printed cards and a letter.  Then I got a new printer that didn’t do the colors well.  Then I felt I was writing the same old, same old newsletter, some of which would be about grandchildren the recipients would never meet.  The good news is that by using different software I can print cards with great color.  Now, I only have to finish this column on the Saturday before Christmas and address those cards.

Church Christmas caroling did give my singing career a boost.  The choir was going to be singing at St. Ann’s Residence in Duluth, and the director invited others to join.  I drove the good singer in our family to the event and joined in the singing.  I stood right behind the director and she invited me into the choir!  I think it was my energy, not my skill.  From there I went from being a timid off-key singer to a singing student to a singer who got invited to do solos to a singer who doesn’t practice much.

I think one of the best things I did for Christmas happened on our first Christmas together.  We were living in Cleveland, Ohio, and I knew there was a policeman on foot patrol at Shaker Square, a five minute drive away.  I took him some cookies and coffee.  He was standing in a doorway and really appreciated it.

However you celebrate this solstice time, may the return of the sun bring you wonder and joy.

Also published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-12-24 at http://duluthreader.com/articles/2014/12/24/4568_ghosts_of_christmases_past.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Insecure believers and non-believers

"Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith."
- David Brooks, "The Subtle Sensations of Faith", New York Times, 2014-12-23

The insecure believers make the headlines or the history books.  Think of all the "Islamists" who want to kill anyone who does not believe as they do.  Think of the Ku Klux Klan, the Protestants and Catholic gunmen of Northern Ireland, the Communists of North Korea, and many more "true believers".

We also have so-called non-believers who have to attack those who claim to believe.

Maybe I'm being a hypocrite here because I have questioned the texts that many base their beliefs on.  However, it is only the texts I question, not the belief in something greater than oneself.  But I have no problem with people who believe in something I don't believe in.  My problem is with those who want to "prove" that they are right because of something somebody long ago wrote as "fact".

For example, did Adam and Eve really exist?  Or are they metaphor for our hubris that we "know better than God"?

What we really should consider is "moral truth" over "mythical truth".  For example, was God really tempted by Satan to severely test Job, or is the Book of Job an exploration of why bad things happen to good people?

Free market? What free market?

Certainly not in telecommunications!

All but one telecommunication company* that I know of violates two of the four requirements of a free market.

1) Many buyers and sellers (there are only a few sellers)
2) Buyers and sellers are free to enter and leave the market (we can give up our phones, but…)
3) Buyers and sellers have all the information they need to make a decision (the sellers sure don’t want to give you complete pricing information)
4) All costs are in the sale, that is, no externalities (well, there are externalities like telephone wires, but few really care about their existence)

This little screed was triggered by my desire to have better internet speed than about 5Mbps (nominal 7).  In Duluth, I can get 23Mbps on my cell phone, but if I use it as a hotspot for my laptop the speed drops down to less than 2Mbps.  That means I can’t easily replace my DSL modem by using my cell phone.  My cell phone is with Consumer Cellular* which in turn uses AT&T.  My DSL modem and home phone are with CenturyLink.

AT&T does provide quite a menu to match what you think you need with what is available.  Plans can get pricy if you use several devices, say two tablets and two computers.

The best deal I could figure out was a mobile hotspot with 4GB/month of data at $50.  I can only guess on how much I use.  The mobile hotspot (Unite Pro) costs $200 but is $50 with a 2 year contract (“excluding other account charges”).  If could be sure that we would stay in that limit, it might be a good replacement for our DSL.  Dropping the land line entirely, we could add a home base for our telephone and use our Consumer Cellular account.  That would only be a $10/month charge.  But, how much more voice time would we use?

As for staying in the 4GB/month, I can’t be sure.  My wife spends a lot of time on Skype.

Also, I can’t be sure the AT&T hotspot would always get above 20Mbps.

Also, just how much are those “other account charges”?

On the other hand, CenturyLink is offering 100Mpbs in certain locations.  Try to find those locations!  I got a gibberish page.

To get more detailed information, I had to have an online account.  I won’t go through the hassle I had for that, but I need not have done that.  My wife already had an online account.

When I eventually got my account working, I found the best we can do is 12Mbps.  I can’t find out the price until I request the upgrade!!  So much for the free market.  New subscribers can get it for $19.95/month.  If we’re paying about $60/month for phone and internet (including “other account charges”).  If the cost is split, we’re paying more than new subscribers for our nominal 7Mbps!

Do I go for an AT&T hotspot or do I replace our nine-year-old CenturyLink modem?

*Consumer Cellular is about the only telecommunications company that I know that tells you all of your costs (except “other account charges”).  Not only that, they warn you if your usage might go over your selected usage limit.  And you can change your limits up or down at any time.  The only problem I have, other than the cell phone as hot spot is not as fast I thought it would be, is that the max data limit is 2.5GB/month.

Decisions, decisions!  Computers may be more powerful than pens and paper, but buying pens and paper was a lot easier.

Geopolitics reflected in this blog?

For a long time, most page views came from Russia, sometimes as many as three times page views from the United States.

I can’t imagine why there would be more interest in this blog from Russia than the United States.  My only conclusion is that most of these page views are from reverse spammers; that is, they hope I track back to their sites and…

As of this morning, page views from Russia came in a distant fourth: one third of those from third place France.  The most page views were from the Czech Republic with about half again as many from the United States.

Have the Russian spammers moved the Czech Republic to benefit from a more stable currency?  Or have those who pay for the reverse spammers shifted their business to the Czech Republic?

I hope that the views from France are from a couple of friends and their friends.  Is that right, Claude and Christian?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fruitcake: Doorstop or Holiday Treat

This is a little late for this Christmas, but who says fruitcake is only for Christmas.  After all, those who can restrain themselves will eat a fruitcake over a week or more.  To those who can’t, and several relatives have demolished one of my fruitcakes in a single sitting, I hope you don’t overdose on the sugar.

For the last two or so years that I made fruitcake, I ordered all the fruit and nuts from nutsonline.com, now simply nuts.com.

Originally published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2005-12-08.

Are you a fruitcake conservative or a fruitcake liberal?  A fruitcake conservative has had one bad fruitcake or had some authority figure say that fruitcake is bad and so won’t even try any fruitcake.  A fruitcake liberal may or may not have had any bad fruitcake but is willing to try more fruitcakes looking for better fruitcakes or a diversity of fruitcakes.

In keeping with being a party of one, I think my fruitcake is very good and there may be some other good fruitcakes somewhere.  I can say that many people have asked for my fruitcake and look forward to having another each year.

My fruitcake isn’t strictly “my” fruitcake.  It is based on a recipe my mother gave us years ago.  Her recipe in turn was based on a Mrs. Lamberth’s.  We kept my mother’s hand-written recipe in a cookbook and the cookbook disappeared.  Fortunately, I had the ingredient list on a computer and was able to reconstruct it.

Before you start, be sure you have a 12-qt bowl or pan for mixing the fruit and nuts and an 8-qt mixer bowl for the batter.  You will want an extra large spatula/mixing spoon.  I broke a large wooden spoon one year.  You will need an electric mixer, and if your hands tire easily, you’ll want a stand-alone mixer.  Some of the other equipment needs will become apparent as you read on.

In the 12-qt. bowl mix

1-½ lbs. seedless raisins

1 lb.
golden raisins

½ lb.
candied citron

½ lb. black walnuts

½ lb. English walnuts (also just called walnuts)

Make sure all the clumps of raisins and citron are separated.

If not already cut in half, cut in half

½ lb. candied red cherries (also called glazed cherries) 

Set aside 14 red cherry halves for decorating the cake tops.  Add the remainder to the fruit-nut mix.  Repeat with

½ lb. candied green cherries 

Cut into wedges

1 lb.
candied pineapple 

If the pineapple rings or wedges are more than 3/8 inch thick, split them.  Set aside 28 pineapple wedges for the cake tops.  Add the remainder to the fruit-nut mix.


1 lb.
pecan halves 

select 28 pecans for the cake tops.  Break the remainder into smaller pieces and add to the mix.

Grate the rind of

2 oranges and 2 lemons

and add to the mix.

Stir the mix to distribute the fruit and nuts evenly.  Sift

2 cups flour

over the mix, a small amount at a time, stirring the flour into the mix as you go.

Don’t worry if you don’t have the exact amount of each ingredient.  I think I put in two few pecans and too many walnuts in my first batch this year.

For the batter, start by whipping

½ lb.
butter (two sticks)

in the 8-qt. bowl until it peaks and stays in one piece.  Add

2 cups
brown sugar

and beat until the mixture is smooth.  Add

7 eggs

and beat until the mixture is consistent.  Sift together into the mixture

2-½ cup flour

1 Tbsp ground cinnamon (Tbsp means tablespoon)

1 tsp salt (tsp means teaspoon)

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp cloves

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp baking powder (which I forgot one year)

½ tsp baking soda

Sift the dry ingredients a bit at a time and mix into the batter.  You’ll get some sense as to how much can be mixed in without undue clumping.

Add directly to the batter or in another bowl

1 cup cherry jelly, cherry conserves, or currant jelly

½ cup cherry juice (enjoy the remainder, it comes in 46-oz. cans)

¾ cup dark molasses (now you will understand “slow as molasses”)

½ cup red wine (you might use the red wine to “rinse” the molasses cup)

1-½ oz.
brandy (and maybe 1-1/2 oz. into you)

2 tsp vanilla

½ cup pie cherries (mash these well)

Mix each ingredient or the mix of liquids thoroughly until the batter is smooth (except for lumps of pie cherries).

Add the batter to the fruit-nut mix and blend thoroughly.  Now you’ll know why I said you should have an extra large spatula or spoon.  Be sure to get all the fruit and flour that “hides” in the bottom, especially the center or the edge.

Grease with butter 14 “baby loaf” pans.  These are about 3x5 inches and available in packs of five at most supermarkets.  Don't wait until the last minute to buy.  You and I aren’t the only home bakers in town.

Spoon the cake mixture into each pan up to about an inch from the top.  You might think you don't have enough pans at first, and then suddenly you find you have to fill the last pan from the others.

Bake for two hours at 250° F.  At 1-1/2 hours poke about six holes in each cake with a toothpick and pour

1 Tbsp.
dark rum

on each.  Put the set-aside fruit and nuts on each and then dribble

corn syrup

on the tops.  Return to the oven.  They are ready when you poke them with a toothpick and it comes out with almost no dough stuck to it.

Be forewarned, your fruitcake liberal friends and relatives are going to expect this every year.

Libertarianism with benefits

The title of this entry is from “The Tea Party: A Brief History” by Ronald P Formisano.  He uses it as a subtitle for the chapter “Frustration with Politics as Usual”.  He defines “Libertarianism with benefits” as taking government payments while decrying too much government.

Formisano’s little book packs a big wallop to the inconsistencies of Tea Party politicians.

His final paragraph describing the original Tea Party resistance includes:

"In doing so, [Bostonians and their fellow colonists] looked not backward but forward, to an uncertain future.  Theirs was a populism of ordered community, in which liberty meant individual freedom to pursue one's destiny as well as responsibility and a regard for the common good."

Friday, December 19, 2014

Software glitch gives ambiguous headline

The following is from the Olive edition of the Duluth News Tribune, 2014-12-19:

leaderskilledinairstrikes Three top Islamic State

This is the headline given when one asks for an expanded view of an article.

Just what does is mean?

“Leader skilled in air strikes”


“Three top Islamic State leaders killed in airstrikes”

This kind of headline frequently appears in the Olive Editions of both the Duluth News Tribune and the Star Tribune.  The Olive Edition is the newspaper as printed with the user benefit of expanding a page or a given article.  Really neat when it works.  But too often, a page is blank for several minutes.

The irony is that both the Duluth News Tribune and Star Tribune frequently have front page stories about problems that MNSure may be having.  Granted, this garbled headline problem is a minor nuisance compared to delays in accessing MNSure, but...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Don’t listen to your parents

This is probably not the best advice at this time of year, but I assume most of my readers are not expecting fantabulous gifts under the tree from Santa or their parents.

I’ve had lots of fun with the mantra:
Don’t listen to your parents!
They tell you to act your age.
If you act your age, you’ll grow up.
If you grow up, you’ll get old.
If you get old, you’ll die.
So, why act your age?
I’ve done my share of listening to my parents and other parental figures, and taking their advice to heart.  I’ve also done my share of ignoring advice, either because of orneriness or because the advice was just plain wrong.

I think the best advice was just plain encouragement: get good grades.  Sometimes that encouragement also took the form of a dime or a quarter for each A on my report card.  A dime?  That’s not much!  Ah, but I grew up at a time when a movie ticket was ten cents, and candy bars and ice cream cones were a nickel.

My encouragement was also by example.  We had lots of magazines and newspapers in the house, and my brother and I were given books from time-to-time.

My parents were divorced before I started school, and my father “bribed” us with neat Christmas gifts that encouraged creative play.  Among these were train sets and Erector sets.  Our imaginations soared, even as we had difficulty getting every square nut to turn easily on the small screws.

Then there was the advice that was off-the mark or just plain wrong.

One year about St. Patrick’s day we were getting dressed to go somewhere and my brother and I wondered about wearing green.  My mother replied, “We’re Orange Irish!”  As far as we knew, Magree was an Irish name, but we had no knowledge of any ancestor coming from Ireland.  Plus, because of the divorce, my mother had very little contact with her father-in-law and knew very little of our father’s family history.  If she did, she never shared it with us.  On her side, her grandparents were born in England or Germany.

Many decades later, I pieced together that my Magree line was resident in the United States since at least 1830.  An irony was that my great-grandfather was born in England, though he sometimes claimed to be born in Brooklyn.  His father was probably born in Baltimore, and the closest record I have of him having any Irish connection is being the master of a ship in 1851 bringing mostly Irish immigrants from Liverpool to New York.

So much for being Orange-Irish.

When I proposed to my wife-to-be (Jan), my mother didn’t think she was suitable for me and that the marriage would not last.  Sorry, Mom, but it has lasted longer than your two marriages put together.

Before I met Jan, I had flunked out of Case Institute of Technology.  I considered going to Ohio Wesleyan in the middle of Ohio, but my mother didn’t like that.  I wouldn’t be in Cleveland where she could see me more often.  Well, I did go to Ohio Wesleyan and got good enough grades to get into graduate school at Case.

Because of the divorce, I didn’t see my father much and so didn’t get much advice from him.

I did ask him for a loan of $107 to pay for my meals at Ohio Wesleyan for one semester.  When I tried to pay him back, he refused to accept it.

None of his seven children followed his example on education.  He dropped out after the eleventh grade.  All finished high school, five received college degrees, and two of those did graduate work.

But the advice from my Dad that I chuckle about the most is that music must be foot-tapping.  Probably ninety percent of the time that I turn on MPR the music has a strong beat.  Today, it was L’Arlésienne by George Bizet (and I identified it within two minutes!)  If you are not familiar with it, it is the piece that “The Prisoner” times over and over again, getting a different time for each record.

My mother remarried when I was fifteen.  My stepfather insisted that we use Desenex (and only Desenex) on our feet every morning and that we polish our shoes every week.  He did have a point because he had been hospitalized with athlete’s foot some years before.  I haven’t checked with my brother, but I rarely powder my feet.  If I do, it’s with Desenex only because I happen to have it on the shelf.  Polish shoes?  One does not polish today’s athletic shoes, and I can’t even get myself to oil work boots with any regularity.

My last piece of ignored advice is not from a parent, but a teacher.  In my high school boys had to take a semester class called “Personal Regimen”.  I won’t go into the details of the class, but we could get an F for wearing Levis.  I had been wearing Levis since junior high school ($4.95 a pair) and my mother liked them because they were easier to wash than many other pants.  Sixty years plus later, I wear jeans almost all the time: to church, concerts, theater, restaurants, and more.

Oh, one last word.  The best thing I got out of Personal Regimen was learning to tie a tie.  If I really need to, I can still tie a Windsor knot without looking in the mirror.

When people ask Mel’s age, he tells them to guess.  The latest guesser took six tries to guess, all but the last under.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Augustine predicted Cheney, Putin, the Taliban, and too many others

“Thus it is that all men want peace in their own society, and they all want it on their own terms.  When they go to war, what they want is to make, if they can, their enemies their own, and to impose on them the victor’s will, and call it a peace.…Sinful man hates the equality of all men under God, and, as though he were God, loves to impose his own sovereignty upon his fellow men.”

Augustine as quoted by Elaine Pagels in “Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.

Would wood that could become the lost cord?

I had planned to write this third column about wood last week, but the latest blasphemies of ISIS led me to compare them to the blasphemies of other established religions.

I did have what I thought was a better title for this article, but, as too often happens, I didn’t write it down.  Like the lost chord, it disappeared.

Other than climbing two trees, one of my earliest memories of wood is from eighth grade.  The Cleveland Public Schools required boys to take wood shop, metal shop, and printing.  I remember a bit of each of these classes, but it is only from wood shop that I have a tangible, functional memory.  I built a two-shelf bookcase from walnut.  Other than occasional waxing and once re-gluing its joints, we still have it holding books in our dining room.  How many kids can afford to buy walnut today?

At one time, my Dad had forty acres outside Cleveland that was mostly woods.  He thought he would sell some of his black walnut, hoping to make a tidy profit.  He cut down a few on the side of a ravine, but he couldn’t get anyone to haul them up.  i never did follow up with my half-siblings on what happened to the logs.

I also remember my dad sitting in a kitchen chair at a gasoline-powered splitter.  He went through quite a pile of wood in short order.  I think he may have been in his late sixties then.  But a few years later he went to gas heat.  It was part of his deal with a company building a gas transmission line through his property.  When I split wood by hand in my mid-seventies, I think of his “ease” at the task.

But trees are not always so benign.  A year doesn’t seem to pass without at least one front-page picture of parked cars severely damaged by fallen trees.

When I was  in junior high, a tornado struck parts of Cleveland.  One of the areas was where I had had a paper route.  I don’t know what damage it caused, but decades later, some of those streets didn’t have any of trees that I had passed under on my route.

A few years ago our daughter and her husband had taken their SUV to a dealer for some service.  When the dealer had completed the service, they parked it outside, right under a tree.  A branch broke on the tree and did some serious damage to the roof of their SUV.

Every once in awhile when we go to our cabin in Brimson, we have to cut apart trees that have fallen across our drive or one of our paths.  We have been fortunate that any trees down across the road to and from our cabin have been cut up by somebody else before we got to them.

In Brimson, it is a question of cutting up downed trees vs. cutting down trees.  We have so many downed trees that we really don’t need to cut any live trees for firewood.  We have so many downed trees that we will never get to many of them.  In fact, there are probably enough downed trees within ten feet of our paths, that I will not to have to cut much brush to get to them.

We spent part of the last two weekends cutting up a pair of trees that have been down for three years.  Most of the wood was nice and dry, but when I split some of it, it was filled with caterpillar tunnels or was rotted.  The tunneled wood we certainly won’t bring back to Duluth; the rotted we piled in the fire ring.

Our efforts rewarded us with enough wood to keep us toasty through the night for at least four weekends at the cabin.

But the far better wood for heating is birch, but we would have to wait a couple of years for it to dry out.  As I mentioned in an earlier column, birch is a “weed”.  It just pops up without any help from us.  One birch that I cut years ago had another growing right next to it.  The stump of the previous birch has rotted and the current one is large enough for firewood.  Many of the birch trees are big enough that splitting them in half would make good firewood.  The problems are getting enough burnable wood for now, making sure that we have a clear space for them to fall, and being at our cabin with enough time to cut them down and split them.

Remember how we were disappointed about all the dying birch when we bought the property over twenty years ago?  Well, the remains of many of those dead birches are still useful.  We have many tubes of birch bark still around.  Take a sharp knife, cut in a few inches, tear off, and clean up.  A handful of birch bark is the best fire starter of all.  One of the locals who did some work for us said birch bark was just like fuel oil.  If we don’t have a lot of snow in the next few weeks, maybe we can harvest enough old birch bark to last us through the winter.

Mel thinks three articles on trees is enough for now.  He promises not to write about trees for the rest of the year.

Opposing “smart growth” limits choices

I sent the following to the Star Tribune on 1999-07-31.  I think it was not published.  I can’t find the original article with a search of the Star Tribune, but you can find selections from Krinkie’s article at http://www.reocities.com/Yosemite/2288/mnlrt1999.htm.

Phil Krinkie begins his opinion piece on "Smart Growth" criticizing the ten principles "as developed by the Smart Growth Network and embraced by the Metropolitan Council", but nowhere does he quote them to prove his point. I went to the Web page of the Smart Growth Network (www.smartgrowth.org) and found:


The mission of the Smart Growth Network is to encourage development that better serves the economic, environmental and social needs of communities. The Network provides a forum for information-sharing, education, tool development and application, and collaboration on smart growth issues.


* Mix land uses.
* Take advantage of compact building design.
* Create housing opportunities and choices.
* Create walkable communities.
* Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.
* Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas.
* Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities.
* Provide a variety of transportation choices
* Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective
* Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

I don't see these principles "as a textbook example of how to win the debate by defining the terms." To me they are a clear statement that it is important to involve all interested parties in urban planning. I don't see them as either "New Age panache" or as "esoteric jargon." In fact, they are quite similar in style to the mission statements and principles found in the annual reports of many large corporations.

I don't see Phil Krinkie's problem that to "encourage stakeholder collaboration and community participation rather than conflict" is "vague, could-mean-just-about-anything gobbledygook."  Rather than only a developer appearing before a planning commission isn't it better to have the active participation of the neighbors, those who would lose land when a road is widened miles away from the development, those who would see old, familiar landmarks taken away, and anyone who would see an adverse impact on their lives?  There are few economic transactions in which the only interested parties are the buyer and the seller; land development is not one of those few transactions.

What is wrong with "high-density development" as part of "smart growth"?  Providing high-density development is giving more "housing opportunities and choices" and is no more "mandatory" than the current predominance of "low-density development."

What is wrong with "pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods"?  Should the only places available to walk be private areas (read "malls")?  "Pedestrian-friendly" doesn't always mean "no-cars"; it does mean separating as much as possible pedestrians from cars.  Mall parking lots could be made "pedestrian-friendly" by providing a raised aisle for drivers and passengers to walk from their cars to the building without concern of being backed over.

Why should the "smart growth crowd" provide "specifics on how they intend to implement their bold vision"?  The specifics are to be provided in the communities.  The mission of the "smart growth crowd", which includes Democrats, Republicans, and others, is to "encourage communities" and provide means for communities to meet a variety of development needs.  Of course "smart growth will be just another cobbled-together conglomeration of..." but what human activities which involve many interests don't become that way.  Most of the "Founding Fathers" died bitter because they saw their beautiful, republican structure governed by a disinterested elite turn into an ugly, democratic mess of squabbling interests ("The Radicalism of the American Revolution", Gordon S. Wood).

"Based on what" "we do know" low-density residential development has produced "more congestion" and "more pollution".  Just visit I-394 or Highway 169 in the morning or afternoon.  Which is a higher price: paying say, five dollars more a week on your groceries at the "quaint little pedestrian-friendly" corner store or paying thousands of dollars a year in capital and operating expenses for a car to get to the super-supermarket?  Many of us do know that many urban neighborhoods are "fun to visit" and we do "want to live there."

I have lived in little apartments, big apartments, small houses on little lots, and medium houses on medium lots.  I have lived in big cities, inner suburbs, outer suburbs, and the country. I have lived in three states and two foreign countries.  In every case I have found shortcomings and much to enjoy.

I can say from my own experience that "new urbanism" is not based on a nostalgic view of the teeming cities of the '20s and '30s" but of the 40s and 50s. I grew up in apartments and duplexes and single family homes on lots no bigger than the backyards of a typical suburban home. I enjoyed walking to school, playgrounds, movies, the Y, church, and other activities. At 10 years old I took streetcars and buses by myself downtown and other places more than a mile away.  I grew up with a sense of freedom because I didn't have to depend on adults to take me places that I wanted to go.  I didn't see "the crime, the noise and the filth" as any greater than in my suburban home of the 80s and the 90s. That is, in both places there were homes burglarized, some people played radios too loud, and slobs left food wrappers, cans, and bottles wherever it was convenient for them.  In both cases such disturbing events were not the norm; one generally felt safe, the neighborhoods were generally quiet, and one felt a sense of cleanliness and order.

I don't see where the Mission or Principles kick suburban life "around like a mangy mutt."  Isn't suburban life one of the mixed land uses?  Isn't suburban life one of the "housing opportunities and choices”?  Doesn't suburban life include open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas.  Shall all lakes be ringed with private houses with no access for fishing or swimming?  Shall all corn be trucked three days from Florida rather than be picked fresh in the morning?  Shall counties sell all the public parks for private development?  Think of the increase in the tax base!! Shall developers increase runoff to neighboring developments with careless grading?

"Sprawl" isn't so much "a pejorative catch phrase" as it is a description of any development that considers only the residences being built as important.  When no consideration is given to the many activities of the people who live in those residences then we definitely have "sprawl".  People require water and sewer; where is the water going to come from and where is the waste going to go?  Most people still work away from home; who is going to pay for the roads.  Children need to go to school; who is going to pay for the buses?  People need food; how far will they have to drive to just buy a quart of milk?  Wouldn't it be better if we were smart about growth and had public planning by hundreds or thousands of citizens rather than planning by a few dozen private interests?

"The truth, however, is that low-density development is" a "threat to Minnesota's rural areas."  If one considers all the land that is in the state of Minnesota, the conversion of land from rural to suburban for the whole state is not a problem.  However, if one considers the Twin Cities metro area then it is. I've known people whose residences have been threatened to make room for wider highways.  I've seen cornfields converted to upscale houses (on indecently small lots) because the owner couldn't afford to pay the skyrocketing taxes.  That was great corn, too! I myself gave up on a garden because deer had to range farther when their habitat was taken over by houses.  I guess low-density development isn't a threat to these rural areas because they don't exist anymore!

However, I don't see how smart growth is making the people living in these houses feel guilty.  What smart growth is asking is this the only way to go.  Is "living on large residential lots and driving their SUVs to work each day" the choice that everyone wants?  If everybody makes that choice, then many will be driving very slowly to work each day through concrete canyons like I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul.  They won't enjoy the view and will wish they hadn't told "planners to take a hike."

A safer driving test?

I sent the following to the Star Tribune on 1999-07-15.  I don’t think it was published.  The link to inrets.fr still exists but the link to ccad.uiowa.edu does not.

"Unreal games" reminded me of many earlier thoughts I've had about driving simulation. When I tried Silicon Motor Speedway at the Mall of America, I thought that its technology could be used to give more rigorous driving tests. When I read about Unreal's software engine https://www.unrealengine.com/what-is-unreal-engine-4, I thought that this technology would be even better for a driving test.

States will probably continue to test applicants in real cars in artificial environments for many decades. But what if insurance companies tested their customers in artificial cars with a seemingly realistic environment? Instead of only stopping for a stop sign, keeping in the lane, turning correctly, what if
drivers could be tested on how close they followed, how well they could stop when a ball rolled into the street, how well they could drive at night, how well they could do in dozens of situations they would encounter on real streets.

As an inducement for drivers to take the test, the insurance companies would lower drivers' premiums according to how well they did on the test. Even if some drivers aced the test but continued many bad habits and attitudes, wouldn't they have gained some small change in behavior and skill?

To check on how far the technology has come, I searched the web for "driving simulator" and "driving simulations", I received 1300 references (via HotBot).  Clicking on the very first item (http://www.inrets.fr/ur/sara/drifac_e.htm) I found a wealth of other links. One was a Driving Simulation Conference in Paris, France this past week. Another was a set of abstracts of papers written at the Center for Computer-Aided Design at the University of Iowa; these discussed many of the problems of driving simulation and solutions already found (http://www.ccad.uiowa.edu/research/ids/technical-papers/). Other links were to a few software packages from around the world.

In what I did visit, I found government and auto manufacturer sponsors, but no insurance companies. I reduced the selection by adding "insurance" and still had 830 finds. The first twenty didn't look promising other than some school districts' driver education programs were mentioned.

Considering what I found in a few minutes was far more than I had read about recently, insurance companies and others in a position to test drivers may be doing more than I know.  For the sake of safety and comfort on the roads for all us, let's hope that someone, somewhere has already taken steps to increase dramatically the number of good, defensive drivers.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Moderate Manifesto

Originally published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2004-11-18.  You can find many articles on “Moderate Manifesto” published since then by many authors since.

A spectre is haunting America – the spectre of divisiveness.  All the powers of old grudges have entered into an unholy alignment to excite this spectre: freethinker and evangelical, Moore and Limbaugh, urban radicals and exurban commuters.

Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as divisive by its opponents in power? 

Where is the Opposition that has not hurled the branding reproach of divisiveness against more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?
Two things result from this fact:

1. Moderation is sadly needed by all American powers to become itself a power.

2. It is high time that Moderates should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of divisiveness with a manifesto of moderation itself.

To this end, a Party of One assembled in Duluth and sketched the following manifesto, to be published, sadly, in only one newspaper and in only the English language.

A moderate party would be based on four principles:

1. Strive for a balance between individual liberty and public good.

2. Discuss issues openly and respectfully.

3. Provide and pay for government services at the appropriate level.

4. Use party policies as guidelines.  Individual officeholders are free to make independent decisions based on the first three principles.

We need a balance between individual liberty and public good because too much liberty for some leads to harm to others and too much public good leads to loss of liberty for all.  On the other hand, too little liberty leads to a lack of creativity and too little public good leads to a lack of infrastructure to support creativity and the movement of people, goods, and ideas.

We need open and respectful discussion of issues to allow voice for a wide range of ideas.  Hardened opinions lead only to more hardened opinions.  “Our side is right and your side is wrong.”  Ideas lead to more ideas.  Rather than debates to win voters to one candidate or another, we need conversations to define what the real problems are and what possible solutions are available.

We need to provide for government services at the appropriate levels as well as levy the taxes at those levels that provide the services.  We avoid taxes at lower levels of government and demand more services from higher levels of government.  This has several pernicious effects.  As we avoid taxes at lower levels, local governments have few resources to provide the services local communities want. 

The demand for the local services does not go away but is pushed up to higher government levels. 

Higher government levels need to raise taxes to pay for those services.  Provision of services from outside the local community leads to services out of proportion to local needs resulting in poor delivery, excessive requirements, or unused services and equipment.  As taxes at higher levels go up, the ability to tax at lower levels goes down.  Inevitably, taxes at higher levels reach a point where voters rebel, the services provided at the higher level are cut, and the lower levels are unable to make up for those cuts.

We need politicians who follow a broad set of guidelines rather than a detailed list of party policies. 

When parties have detailed policies we move toward groupthink rather than individual liberty, and groupthink is not good for the common good.  The United States Senate is often called “the greatest deliberative body in the world.”  This may be true in some committee hearings, but hardened opinions has led to more posturing and less deliberating in the general sessions.  Hardened opinions are being demonstrated in state legislatures and city councils as well.

What are some policy examples that might follow from these principles?

One of the most divisive issues is abortion.  One side wants no abortions anytime anywhere; the opposite side wants no government interference in abortions anytime anywhere.  The only way to have no abortions is to keep all fertile females away from all fertile males.  That would move far away from the first principle of individual liberty.  Even if mixing of the sexes were permitted for married couples what happens when a pregnancy goes seriously awry?  Do we sacrifice both the mother and the fetus to a principle of no abortions?  The basic problem is unwanted pregnancies.  To reduce abortions we need to reduce unwanted pregnancies.  The proven ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies are to reduce abusive family situations, poverty, and ignorance.  The real discussion should be how to implement policies to reduce these problems.

The right charges that the left is weak on defense and the left charges that the right is militaristic.  But what is defense?  Is it military might that is suitable against mass armies?  Or is it international co-operation to resolve disputes?  Is it high-tech weaponry that can take out selected targets?  Or is it international police co-operation to root out terrorist cells before they can strike?

Freedom and democracy are words brandished like swords by those who claim them as their own goals.  Is freedom only granted to those who agree with a government?  Or is it the freedom to express unpopular opinions?  Is democracy only granted to those who vote for a dominant party and begrudgingly given to a large-scale opposition?  Or is democracy an open society in which people feel free to exercise their right “to petition the Government for redress of grievances”?

In summary, the Moderate Party should be the party that asks the hard questions.  And by asking the right questions, might lead a consensus that will lead to a better country and to a better world.

Playing God

ISIS is playing God.  It is deciding who should live or die based on a narrow religious belief.
If Allahu akbar (God is great) means anything, then shouldn't Allah be the One deciding who should live or die?  If God is so dissatisfied with those who don't believe as ISIS does, then shouldn't God be the one sending a Great Flood to punish all the sinners?  If God destroyed the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, shouldn't God be the one destroying the cities of the Yazidis for their "blasphemy" rather than ISIS?

Speaking of blasphemy, aren't those who charge blasphemy against others being blasphemous themselves.  Is the supposed blasphemy against God or against their interpretation of God and God's laws?

These truly blasphemous acts have been going on for millennia by people with all kinds of religious beliefs.

Jewish law called for stoning those who blasphemed against Yahweh.  But didn't Yahweh give a commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."  Yahweh had no qualifiers on that commandment.  Yet within a few years Joshua destroyed dozens of cities, supposedly on the command of the Lord God.  Was Joshua playing God to assume that he could freely kill the residents of these cities?  He “destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded”.  The Book of Joshua is one big compendium of violence and giving the spoils to the victors.

Irenaeus was a bishop in the early Christian Church.  He railed against those who didn't believe as he did.  He was so successful in banning alternative beliefs that books expounding other beliefs never made it into the Canon, and those who had these books buried them in the desert.  An example is the Book of Judas.

Tomás de Torquemada was appointed as Grand Inquisitor in Spain.  He had many Jews and Muslims tortured and killed because he deemed that they didn’t fully and sincerely convert to Christianity.   His name has become synonymous with overbearing interrogation.  Ironically, he himself was a descendant of Jews.

Of course, Protestants weren't innocent either.  Jean Calvin, originally a Catholic, was an active opponent of Michael Servetus’ anti-trinitarianism.  Calvin was instrumental in having Servetus burned at the stake on order of the Geneva city council.

The Church of England, albeit not strictly Protestant, fined people in the 1500’s for not attending church. The 1559 Act of Uniformity penalized those who conducted unofficial services.  Some who did conduct unofficial services were executed for sedition.

The Pilgrims escaped England because they did not like the trappings of the Anglican Church and the imposition of religious conformity.  One group fled to North America and landed in Massachusetts.  They in turn demanded conformity.  The Quakers upset this conformity, often with disruptive acts.  The Pilgrims tried throwing them out and they would return.  They hung some and bored holes in the tongues of others.  Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses should be glad they live in our times.  They only get doors slammed in their faces.

Is it any wonder that the writers of the Constitution included ““no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”?  It is also a wonder that many “strict constructionists” want to have prayer breakfasts, have candidates meet with religious leaders, and call into question the Christianity of the President.

Jack Whitley was asked to resign as chairman of the Big Stone County Republican Party because of his facebook comments that Muslims are “parasites” and “terrorists”.  What if he had an “Office or public Trust under the United States”?  Would his vile remarks be considered failing a “religious” test?

Unfortunately, these hateful attitudes are not just held by those who call themselves Christian or Muslim.  From “Gandhi” with Ben Kingsley, I remember the hateful remark of a distraught Hindu father, “Muslims killed my baby!  I want to kill Muslims!”  Muslims in Burma have been persecuted by Buddhists many times for over 600 years; it continues even to today.  This doesn’t resonate with one of the Eight Truths of Buddhism: Right Action: Acting in a non-harmful way.

I am always suspicious of anyone who claims to speak for God, whether they go up a mountain or read from some book that is full of contradictory advice.  Especially when they call for the expulsion or murder of people that don’t hold exactly the same views as they do.  These hateful people forget one of the most important words in their holy books: forgiveness.

In addition to the Buddhist Right Action, there are:

“thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”: Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39 (and elsewhere)

“...and you should forgive and overlook: Do you not like God to forgive you?” Qu’ran: Surah 24, v. 22.

My favorite though is:

“What is hateful to yourself, do not to do to your fellow man.  That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary.  Go and study it.” - Rabbi Hillel (a contemporary of Jesus), Talmud Shabbat 31a.

This article was also published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2014-12-04 at http://duluthreader.com/articles/2014/12/04/4460_playing_god

Monday, December 01, 2014

An open letter to President George W. Bush

Originally published in Reader Weekly
December 4, 2003

Note: most of the links are no longer available.

Dear President Bush:

You have said dozens of times that you will “do whatever it takes” to win the war on terrorism, the latest being when you signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2004 on November 24, 2003. (1)  At that time you said, “We will do whatever it takes to keep our nation strong, to keep the peace, and to keep the American people secure.”

I submit that you are not doing everything it takes to do all that you promised.  Here are some ideas of what it takes to leave Iraq satisfactorily and continue the “war on terrorism.”

First, accelerate training in Arabic.  I have read that the Army is short of Arabic translators (2)(3) and I have read how effective good translators are (see Stars and Stripes among others).  I have also seen it reported that troops have killed unarmed people because they could not speak Arabic and had no translator.  However, nowhere in your speech or in the Defense Authorization Act do the words Arabic or language appear.

You should not only accelerate training for more Arabic translators, but you should provide training for all Iraq-based troops to learn as much Arabic as they wish.  This latter could be with CDs, small-classes, or just a mass distribution of phrase books.  I know from personal experience that speaking the local language even a little bit builds better relations.

Second, you should start reading newspapers and magazines and stop depending on your staff to filter the news for you.  The best you can depend on your staff to do is to tell you what they think you want to hear, not what you need to know.  I recommend that you read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Spectator, The Progressive Magazine, Stars and Stripes, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, The Daily Star of Lebanon, and Dawn of Pakistan, especially the editorials in all of these.  They should give you a very wide range of opinions to provide you a much better basis for your decisions.  Among recent articles I highly recommend is “Tour of Duty” in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly; it includes accounts of now-Sen. John Kerry’s experiences as a Navy officer on river duty in Viet Nam.  It will give you some insight in the disconnect between what is happening on the battlefield and what is happening in the Pentagon.  Read some books on recent Iraq history – an example is Sandra Mackey’s The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein.  Iraq is a very complex country with a long history of domination by outsiders.  One cannot make judgments about Iraq without understanding these complexities.

Third, have a long private talk with General John Abizaid, no advisors present, just you and him.  Let him tell you what he thinks needs to be done to get Iraqis governing themselves peacefully.  Not only does General Abizaid speak Arabic, but he has lived and studied in the Middle East.  He also has made a specialty of unconventional warfare using semi-independent units rather than big coordinated units.  This style is much better for fighting small-scale insurgencies such as occur in Iraq on a daily basis.

Fourth, have a long private talk with Senator John Kerry.  Again no advisors.  He should be able to give you a good understanding about what really happens in war.  He understands that what headquarters thinks is happening or wants to happen is not always what is really happening or should happen.

Sixth, rename the “War on Terror”.  The struggle against terrorism really is more a police investigation on a massive scale.  Are you going to bomb Germany, France, Turkey, England, and Canada because they are “harboring” terrorists?  Bombs did not arrest those who were found in these countries, police did. On the other hand bombs dropped on civilians are a good recruiting tool for any resistance.

Finally, don’t worry about re-election.  Which would you rather do - pass your successor in 2005 a plan that is bringing about your goals or pass your successor in 2009 a mess that is spiraling out of control?  Short-term actions that may please a large number of voters may work against long-term interests that would “keep our nation strong, … keep the peace, and … keep the American people secure.”  If you are going to do whatever it takes, do the right thing.

(1) Signing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2004, November 24, 2003, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/11/20031124-2.html

(2) "Expert: Lack of Arabic hurts U.S. in Iraq", Washington Times, July 25, 2003, http://washingtontimes.com/upi-breaking/20030725-032406-5262r.htm

(3) "U.S. 'desperately in need' of Arabic speakers to hold Iraq", World Tribune.com, July 9, 2003, article no longer available online

P.S. May 26, 2007, one of my sources for this article was "Iraq Today, The Independent Voice of Iraq".  I can find no direct reference to it.  The URL http://www.iraq-today.com cannot be found.  The editor, Hassan Fattah, left Iraq in March or April 2004 when his situation became too dangerous.  See "Goodbye, Baghdad", by Hassan Fattah, published in the July/August 2004 Columbia Journalism Review.  This article is not available directly from CJR.

©2003, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree

George Will and “Failing” schools

Here’s another letter to the editor that probably wasn’t published.  This was in response to George Will’s “Tall Order for a Few Federal Dollars”.  It was published in February 2001.  The only easily available copy I could find was from the Southeastern Missourian, 2001-02-03 at

The text of my letter, dated 2001-02-03 follows.

I am amazed how ideology leads a deep thinker like George Will to be as shallow as he is in “Tall Order for a Few Federal Dollars”.

At the beginning of his article, he talks about “failing schools” and how transfers to other public schools or vouchers to private schools would allow students to leave these failing schools.  He goes on to list what factors lead to students’ success but he says that schools can only influence one of those factors and that additional resources won’t change any of these factors.

He also compares the “success” of private schools to the “failure” of public schools but with a superficial assumption that the student populations are identical.

He gives a measure of the skills of public school teachers without examining whether his measure is appropriate to what the teachers are doing.  He also links that measure to a comparison of “cognition” of American students with that of students in other developed countries.

Furthermore, he uses that measure to show that class size won’t make any difference.

From his article and from a couple hours of newspaper and Web research, I see a different picture.

First, if students are allowed to leave “failing schools”, which students will leave?  The “failing” students who are most in need of “better” teaching, or the successful students who have the advantage of the five factors of
- number of parents in home
- days absent from school
- hours spent watching television
- quantity and quality of reading matter in home
- amount of homework

If the successful students leave, won’t the failing schools fail even more?  If the failing students leave, won’t they be taking their problems to other schools and lead those schools to “fail”?

Will ignores that additional resources can change four of the five factors, including the only one he says that the schools can control - amount of homework.  If classes are smaller, then teachers can give and check more homework.  Schools can influence absenteeism with truant officers and counselors, neither of which work for free.  Schools can help reduce hours spent watching television by providing more after school activities; activities like sports, music, and theatre cost money in material and staff time.  Schools can provide a quantity of quality reading matter, but books and librarians cost money.  The only factor additional resources can’t change is the number of parents.

Will writes that most failing schools serve inner-city children but inner-city Catholic schools “do better with fewer resources”.  Are the public schools and the Catholic schools serving students with the same lack of success factors?  Because some parents choose to send their children to Catholic schools, might more of the success factors be present in those families?  Will doesn’t raise this question.  Furthermore, the Catholic schools can select their students; the public schools have to take all students.

Will states that “38 percent of American teachers had college majors in academic subjects” and implies that majoring in education makes a teacher inadequately trained.  However, most schools don’t get deeply into “academic subjects” until junior high.  Many elementary teachers teach a wide range of subjects, especially in the lower grades.   In 1997 there were about 1.2 million secondary public and private teachers and about 1.85 million elementary teachers.  That means about 39% of the teachers were junior and high school teachers.  That is rather close to the percent of teachers who had a major in an academic subject.

Will relates his perception that too few teachers had academic majors to how “American students’ cognition [compares] with students around the developed world”.  Again, is he comparing similar groups of students?  The Department of Education warns in Digest of Education Statistics 1999, Chapter 6 - International Comparisons of Education (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/digest99/chapter6.html)  “...international data users should be cautioned about the many problems of definition and reporting involved in the collection of data about the educational systems in the world.”  Could it be that different kinds of students are being measured in different countries?  For example, are the students being measured in some countries only those on an academic track as opposed to all students in the U.S.?  If all students are being measured in those other countries, do they have the same mix of socio-economic classes as the U.S. does?  More specifically, is there a large portion of students who lack some of the five significant success factors?

Finally, Will claims small class size “simply increases the attention each pupil gets from an inadequately trained teacher.”  The Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program in Wisconsin has shown that smaller class sizes give better results (Duluth News-Tribune, Jan. 18, 2001).  As one teacher put it, with larger classes “it's a lot of tying shoes”.

Follow up email to the Washington Post:

In today's Star Tribune I found a more factual rebuttal than mine to George Will's Feb. 1st column on education.  It is about the ACE (A Commitment to Excellence) program in Minneapolis.  [The link I had no longer works.  The article was from 2001-02-04.]  In short, it is about a program that targets at-risk black males to give them tutoring and counseling to help them succeed.  The $500,000 program is sponsored by the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis Public Schools, and Hennepin County Children and Family Services.

You can find a link to the start of the article at http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-69979742.html.

What a difference a day makes

Originally published in
Reader Weekly
March 15, 2001
Often when I do something different, I have unexpected problems which might not have happened if I had done the usual.

One weekday in August was unusual in many ways and I had my share of problems.  I planned to go to our cabin in Brimson, Minnesota on Thursday morning instead of Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.  Kathleen Anderson, a Brimson jill-of-all-trades, was to come over at one o’clock to help me do the base for our sauna.

The first problem was at breakfast; I spilled orange juice.  Now I had to wash the table cloth.  Then I forgot to pack some things.  Then the garage door would only open partially.

I eventually got to Brimson at noon and gobbled lunch.  I scurried around to have all the tools and material in place before Kathleen came.

Kathleen came at the appointed time.  In about three hours we had the base level and square.

The rest of the day was a blur of work and reading.  I started getting ready for bed about nine, actually got into bed before ten, and zonked out quickly.

Sometime after eleven I woke up to scratching and peeping sounds.  It was in the stove pipe.  Something was stuck just above the damper, probably a bird.

I really didn’t want to take the stove pipe apart.  I would have soot everywhere, and the bird would probably fly all over the room before I finally got it out of the cabin.

I laid awake wondering what to do in the morning.  Do I build a fire to incinerate the critter?  Do I take the stove pipe apart?  What can I put down the chimney to snag the bird?  Aha!  Duct tape on the end of a set of rods!

I finally fell into a fitful sleep, sometimes waking to more scratching and peeping.

At six the alarm went off.  I had lots to do for the day.  Slowly, bit by bit, I washed my face and put on my contact lenses, folded the bed into a couch, read the newspaper online, ate breakfast, and other odds and ends.

Finally a bit after eight I am ready to rescue the bird.  I assemble the chimney brush rods and set them on the roof.  I put the ladder against the roof.  I get my hard hat with ear protectors and a screen face plate.  I don’t want to be pecked or scratched.  I get my work gloves and tool belt.  Into the tool belt I put a flashlight, scissors, and a roll of duct tape.

Up the ladder I go!  Take storm cap off chimney.  Peer down chimney.  It’s just a black hole.  Shine flashlight down hole.  The soot just eats the light.  Maybe I should put new batteries in the flashlight.  Wait a minute!  I have a work light.

Down the ladder.  Get work light and 100 foot extension cord on a reel.  Plug cord into outlet on side of cabin.  Plug light into cord to check.  After some jiggling I have a good connection.

Up the ladder with the light and the cord reel.  Get the work light in place.  It doesn’t come on!  Jiggle the connection.  It works.  Look down the chimney again.  The light doesn’t come on.  Repeat previous steps.  Finally the light is on pointing down the chimney.  The soot eats the light.  Maybe the light from the work light is too diffuse.  I’ll try new batteries in the flashlight.

Down the ladder.  Cut open new package of batteries.  Replace batteries.  Check flashlight.  Great, it’s quite a bit brighter.

Up the ladder.  Shine flashlight down chimney.  Flashlight doesn’t work!  Unscrew cap and reseat cap.  Now it works.  Shine down chimney.  It looks like there is a spot of light down there.  But I can’t really see anything ten feet down a matte black tube.

OK, I’ll try to get the bird out blind.  Cut piece of duct tape.  Good sign, it doesn’t fold on itself.  Wrap tape around end of rod, twist tape so sticky side is out when I make a loose loop.  Twist and wrap other end around rod.

Stick rod down chimney.  Slowly, slowly, gently, gently.  I don’t want to crush the bird.  I feel the bird at about ten feet.  The rod feels just a bit heavier.  Pull up and out.  What is this dark blob I see?  Just soot covered duct tape!  Put another loop of tape on end of rod.

Stick rod down chimney.  Slowly, slowly, gently, gently.  I feel the bird.  I pull up.  The rod doesn’t feel heavier.  Try again.  The rod is going down further!  It’s going past the damper!  It won’t come back up!  The tape is catching the damper!

Oh great!  Am I going to have take the stove pipe apart after all?  Keep trying.  Again.  Again.  On the fourth try the tape comes through the damper, I hope.  Feel around again for the bird.  Ah!  I think I have it.  Up gently, gently, slowly, slowly.  Don’t bang the rod and bird against the side of the chimney.

The end of the rod is in sight.  I see a gray lump.  It looks furry.  I see one webbed wing.  I see a big pink hole opening and closing as the bat gasps for air or screeches threats.

I set the rod down and the bat falls off or extricates itself from the sticky duct tape.

The bat lies on the roof on its belly with its wings and legs splayed out.  Oh!  I should take a picture of the bat.  As I turn around to start down the ladder to get my camera, I see the bat gliding into the nearby trees.

I laugh and sigh at my accomplishment.  I can’t believe that I succeeded in my wishful plan.  From the roof I look out over our little domain of outbuildings surrounded by acres and acres of trees.  I feel the rush of yesterday fade away to serenity.

©2001, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree

Apple Computer and Reliability

I sent the following as a letter to the Editor of Barron’s on 2003-05-27.  Over eleven years later I’m still waiting for the reliability that I asked for in the letter.  And the unanswered list in Apple’s Support Community gets longer and longer.  At least Apple now offers system upgrades as a free download, even major upgrades like Mavericks to Yosemite.  Still I will wait until I buy a new computer for the major upgrade.  I still do believe “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

I have two other ideas for improving Apple than those given in “Beyond iTunes”.

First, Apple really needs to develop OS X as a super-reliable operating system.  It is great that a problem application rarely crashes OS X, but there are many problems in OS X and applications written for OS X that can be very annoying to users, experienced or otherwise.  This super-reliability needs to be in OS X off-the-shelf and in rapid solutions from Apple as problems arise.

Apple’s AppleCare support staff were unaware of problems connecting some Macintosh computers to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who deployed the latest modems (v.92).  The first two I spoke to about my problems connecting or staying connected could only suggest that I completely reinstall the operating system!  After a few weeks of frustration, I stumbled on the cause (the new modem type at my ISP) and the solution.  The fix for my level of operating system (10.1.5) had been available from another unit of Apple before I even called the first time!  The third support person to whom I angrily told the solution had been ignorant of the problem when I called.

Worse yet, Apple’s own discussion boards had dozens of messages about this problem both for my older level of the operating system and the latest level (10.2.6).  The fix I found did not work for those with the latest level.  Apple did not seem to be responding to any of these messages.  This lack of response loses some business for Apple; I should pay $129.95 to upgrade to a system that may be useless to me?

This leads to my second thought.  Apple should take a page from Microsoft’s customer-relations book.  Microsoft has adopted the slogan “Trustworthy Computing”.  Apple should have the slogan “Responsive Computing”.  Not only must Apple provide a even more trouble-free operating system, but it must respond to customer complaints in a more timely fashion.  It seems too often Apple treats its customers as ignoramuses who haven’t even checked if the computer is plugged in.  It has too often pushed customers off on user groups in the expectation that these will have members who can solve all problems.  User groups may have only five or six members who really delve into problems and then don’t use the same configuration in the same way as many other members.   Apple should better monitor its support lines and its discussion boards to find out what problems its users have, seek to elicit more details from those with problems, correlate similar problems, and provide timely solutions to those problems that are widely available within Apple’s own organization and to its customers.

Whiz bang products may get the public’s attention, but it is great customer service that keeps people coming back.

Melvyn D. Magree

A former programmer who has spent forty-five years learning only a tiny bit about computers and who believes, “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” (Now fifty-six years!)

Friday, November 28, 2014

I give thanks for trees

I give thanks most recently for the two aspen that fell down a couple of years ago right next to a path.  One had been stuck at a forty-five degree angle in another tree, but I managed to cut it last year so the remainder was lying parallel to the ground.  This past weekend my wife and I went to cut them up into fireplace lengths.

These were nine inches and greater in diameter.  It would be much quicker to cut them up with a chain saw than with a draw saw or a bow saw.  With reason, my wife doesn’t want me to use a chain saw without adult supervision.

First step is to put on chaps.  The chaps are meant to snarl up a chain saw if it comes in contact with my legs.  Next step is to put on a hard hat with ear muffs and a face guard.  Next step is to fill the chain saw with bar oil and 50:1 gas/oil mix.  Final step is to get it started before heading to the woods.

My chain saw is labelled Easy2Start and it sort of is.  One trick is not to yank on the starter rope but pull it slowly.  Even then it can take a number of pulls in colder weather before it really starts.  Oh yes, there are a couple of important steps before trying to start a chain saw.  One, make sure the chain guard is on.  Two, make sure the chain brake is set.

Finally, the engine keeps running!  I give the trigger a few pulls to keep it running and then turn the engine off.  What?  Turn it off?  Well, I started it by a tool shed and I will be cutting several hundred feet away.  No point in carrying a running saw either in my hands or in a toboggan.

We also put in a timberjack, lopping shears, and draw saws.  Oh, yeah, don’t forget a water bottle.  We don’t carry extra gas or oil because we’ll probably run out of energy before the chain saw runs out of gas.

Actually, it was time for a coffee break before we even filled a toboggan with one layer of rounds.  A round is a short length of a log, for our purposes around fourteen inches long.  But, oh, those rounds!  They were, dry, free of bark and decay, and just the right diameter to put in our fireplace.

After coffee, the timberjack came into play.  One tree had snapped about two feet above the ground, but not completely.  I cut it at the break, and the tree was now laying on the ground.  Not good for a chain saw.  To get the tree above ground to cut without cutting rocks or bending my back too far, I used the timberjack to raise the tree several inches of the ground.  You can see a picture of a timberjack at www.drpower.com under the woodcutting category.

The chain saw ran out of gas just about the time I ran out of gas.  Time for lunch!

We filled up the longer toboggan with two layers of rounds and a few in the smaller toboggan with all the tools.  You can guess who got to pull the longer toboggan.  Even lightly-loaded toboggans have a mind of their own.  When the path turns, they want to go straight.  If the snow is a lot higher than the beaten path, a toboggan can tip as you try to get it back in the path.  Fortunately, the snow was only about three inches higher than the path and no mishaps occurred.

After lunch it was time to split our harvest.  Once upon a time, I split wood with a five-pound splitting maul.  But my aim became worse and worse.  First hit, smack in the middle.  Second hit, one inch too far to the left.  Third hit, one inch too far to the right.  Maybe after ten hits I would have a round split in two.

I did buy a hydraulic manual splitter some years ago.  If the rounds are long enough and cold enough, it works quite well with one hand.  There are only two problems.  One is getting it in and out of the wood shed.  I can still manage to lift it without dropping it on my feet.  The second is to remember to close the oil valve after opening it to let the rammer return.  Many have been the times I’ve wondered why the rammer isn’t splitting the wood.  Then, blink goes the proverbial light bulb and with a few twists of my wrist, the splitter works again.

After a short chocolate break,  I had all the rounds split in halves or quarters, and my wife had it stacked in the wood shed or boxed to take back to Duluth.  Probably to those who depend on wood heat daily, we just played around.  My guess is that we cut and split almost half a fireplace cord.  A fireplace cord is eight-feet long, four-feet high stack of sixteen inch pieces.  That could heat our cabin for possibly three week-ends.

Then it was back to Duluth, light a fire in the fireplace, drink wine, and read newspapers on our iPads.  But we had no undraped window to look out at living trees.

You can find more of Mel’s whimsy at magree.blogspot.com.

This was published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2014-11-27 at http://duluthreader.com/articles/2014/11/27/4415_i_give_thanks_for_trees.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

VA: problem is not the government

Many have been raising complaints about service at many Veterans Administration centers, and many of those blame President Obama and his administration.  But what critics overlook is that they got what they wanted: a smaller government.

How is there a smaller government?  By outsourcing management to private companies.  In the case of the Veteran Affairs Clinic in Hibbing, Minnesota, it is managed by Cincinnati-based Sterling Medical Associates.  See “Elected leaders meet with Hibbing VA workers over scheduling concerns”. http://www.startribune.com/politics/statelocal/283912201.html

According to many of these same critics the purpose of a company is to generate profits.  In other words, good service is secondary.  Some companies do provide good service as a means of increasing profits.  Too many others will short-change good service if it means costs are cut and profits raised.

The sole purpose of government is to provide service.  Sure, this gets side-tracked too, but it is far easier to bring that leviathan back to its purpose than it is to get profit-driven companies to put service first.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I like trees, dead or alive

For as long as I can remember, I have been near trees or wood products.  If trees were not on the block I lived, there were some just a minute or two away.  Probably every building I lived in was wood framed, and each had wood door and window frames.  And of course I’ve had access to books, magazines, and newspapers everywhere.

When we lived in Plymouth outside Minneapolis, we planted a small variety of trees in addition to those left on the lot when our house was built.  Over the twenty-two years we lived there, we cut some of them down and planted new ones.  We cut trees down because they became diseased or otherwise threatened to fall down.  We cut trees down because we wanted to plant something else there.

Two of the saddest removals were of a very large box elder and a clump of small box elders. 

We had the large box elder taken down because it threatened to drop large limbs on our roof.  Besides our visual loss, it might have been the loss of a home to a three-legged squirrel whom we saw raise several families.

I forgot why I cut down the smaller clump.  When I cut down the first, a pair of crows were trying to land where the tree had been.  “Where’s our nest?  It used to be here.”

When we bought our property in Brimson, we also bought thousands of trees; mostly aspen and balsam fir and way too much alder.  We also have a section of black spruce swamp, a small stand of red pine planted by a former neighbor, and tamarack.  The first year we saw many large dead or dying birch; we thought that was the end of birch.

A few years before we bought the property, local loggers had clear-cut a large swath of aspen on the Federal land behind us and a section of the property.  The aspen coming up were about ten-feet tall and an inch or two in diameter.

The DNR forester who gave us a stewardship plan told us that if we want moose, we should clear-cut.  Moose like to browse on young aspen.  We did see some moose tracks the first few years but haven’t seen anymore for a long time.  Much of the aspen is five inches or more in diameter.  Moose may still be in the area; a neighbor is a shed hunter and a few years ago found three interlocked horns.

Did you know that aspen is one of the largest organisms in the world?  Aspen grows from an interlocking root system.  I didn't find a reference to the largest in Minnesota, but Pando in Utah is considered the largest.  It covers over 100 acres, weighs over thirteen million pounds, has over 40,000 stems, and is considered to be over 80,000 years old.  If a single stem (trunk) dies, another will replace it from the root system.

Clear-cutting aspen is like giving it a bad cold.  If you treat the cold, it will take seven “days” to heal; otherwise it will take a “week”.

Most of our firewood is aspen, but we don’t even have to cut it down.  Enough aspen three-inch in diameter and larger breaks from wind that we only need to cut it up before it rots.  Even then, I can’t keep up with clearing it.

Our preferred firewood is birch, but we have to wait a few years for cut birch to dry out.  My rule of “thumbs” is that if I can’t touch my thumbs together as I wrap my hands around the trunk then it is a firewood candidate.  Ah, yes!  I didn’t tell you that birch is another “weed”.  Some is growing surrounded by other trees, but most is growing along the edge of paths.  Some is also growing from old stumps.  And some I have transplanted from the utility right-of-way before the periodic brush cutting.

Another welcome “volunteer” is red maple.  We planted some sugar maple in our cabin yard and elsewhere.  Some sugar maple did well; some never grew over a foot.  However, in the same area we planted sugar maple, red maple has come up without any help from us.  We also have a stand of red maple along the back line that is doing well.  It would do even better if I cut all the alder that is growing among the maples.

Alder, ah! There is a “noxious” weed if there ever was one.  Alder grows in clumps that go every which way.  Some will go just above the ground for six feet or more and then shoot right across a path at eye level.  We cut down what we can, but we don’t work hard enough to keep paths open.  We did find a tip that household bleach can kill the stump.  We have only tried it on a few stumps.  All I can say is that the stumps went from orange to white.

At our Duluth house we went from six or more trees to one, and that one is a replacement for one that was getting damaged by heavy snows.  Most of the trees we took down were where we wanted to build a new garage or in the way of power or telephone lines.  The best tree to take out was an American elm right next to the house.  Squirrels used it to get to a vent.  No elm, no squirrels in the wall.

Mel would have rather written this looking at hundreds of trees than a garage and other houses.

This was published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-11-20 at http://duluthreader.com/articles/2014/11/20/4403_i_like_trees_dead_or_alive.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Advice for the Democrats

Kevin Baker wrote an interesting opinion for the New York Times: “Delusions of the Democrats” subtitled “Demographics will not save them”.

He asserts that more female voters and more non-white voters will not help the Democrats in future election.  He asserts that past successes were built on bottom-up ideas rather than top-down pronouncements.

My own take on the Democrats is that they have too many who focus on identity politics and not enough on issues that affect larger groups of people.  Which is a larger group?  Gay marriage proponents or people looking for good jobs?

His closing remark sums it up:

“Invite us to dream a little. You don’t build an enduring coalition out of who Americans are. You do it out of what we can be.”