Monday, March 31, 2014

No Joke: Obamacare successful

See “Obamacare numbers coming in huge: Here’s a guide to GOP excuse-making”, Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, accessed 2014-03-31.

Can we trust politicians who spend more time blocking legislation and appointments than making an effort to make the legislation and appointments better?

Check date, suspend belief

Chartreuse plan for Duluth’s Civic Center

Johnson Controls, Inc. has been selected by the Civic Center Commission to design and build a new Civic Center for Duluth.  Lee Nixon, chair of the commission, pointed out that these three buildings, at 78 and more years old, are outmoded, energy inefficient, and inaccessible.  Mr. Nixon estimated the cost would be about one billion dollars.

Johnson Controls (JCI) had been serving as advisor to the Civic Center Commission on the status of the Center.  JCI had two meetings with a focus group of thirteen and a half people.  After a marathon 24-hour second session, the focus group agreed that the Chartreuse Plan proposed by JCI should be adopted.

Rep. James Oberstar praised the Chartreuse Plan for creating thousands of jobs.  Mayor Don Ness was not so enthusiastic about this budget buster, but he admitted the demolition and construction would permit him to work from home and spend more time with his family.  Harry Welty held a press conference asking why there was no vote to determine who was on the Civic Center Commission, and he estimated the true cost would be two billion dollars.

In JCI’s first revision of the Chartreuse Plan, they stated that far more parking would be needed than in the original.  In order to provide adequate parking, the city and county would have to take by eminent domain the Radisson Hotel, the old KDLH building, and the News Tribune Building.  For some reason, A&L Development’s Phoenix building was not mentioned.  Senate hopeful Al Franken quipped that the parking was probably needed for all the plaintiffs in the suits against the Civic Center Commission and JCI.  Harry Welty held a press conference asking why there was no vote on this project, and he estimated the true cost would be three billion dollars.

Northern Lights Express renamed

Because of a major design change in the Duluth-Twin Cities passenger rail service, it has been renamed and scheduled for earlier availability.  It is now to be called the Big Bertha Express.

The Passenger Rail Alliance learned of the availability of two previously unknown Big Bertha howitzers used by Imperial Germany in World War I.  They were able to purchase them for $5,000 each plus shipping and handling.

The Alliance commissioned ordnance manufacturer Alliant Techsystems Inc. to provide special long shells that can be inserted on the specially armored back of railroad passenger cars.  When the passenger car is ready for departure, a technician pulls the lanyard on Big Bertha and off goes the car at an initial speed of 500 mph.  By the time it reaches the other end, it has averaged 150 mph, thus arriving in one hour.  Of course, the intermediate stops of Anoka, Hinckley, and Carlton had to be dropped.  Initial service will begin on April 1, 2009.

Passengers must have medical exams before boarding.

Barack Obama seals nomination with historic Veep pick

Barack Obama, to show that he is a uniter not a divider, made an unprecedented early vice-president choice.  He reached across race, gender, and party to select Christie Todd Whitman as his running mate.  Ms. Whitman was the Republican governor of New Jersey and later George W. Bush’s first head of the Environmental Protcction Agency.  She was forced out of that position because she took her job seriously and performed it well.

Pollsters are predicting a landslide for Obama in the remaining state primaries.  They say an unprecedented number of Republicans will cross over, that independents who wouldn’t have voted will show up in the thousands, and that Democrats who have tired of the long battle between Obama and Clinton will unite behind a team they think will move the country forward.

I submitted these to the Reader Weekly for the 2008 April Fool’s edition.  My title was “If you believe these, I have a Minnesota bridge I would like you to cross”.  All but one of these were intended for Minnesota readers.

I also submitted the following two items which are of more general interest.

Global warming skeptics rescued from Antarctic iceberg

A large group of global warming skeptics held a conference on the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica to underscore their contention that the “cooling of Antarctica disproves global warming theory”.  They were surprised when the shelf broke off into many pieces.  Many of the conferees were stranded and could not reach the ship that brought them.  They were eventually rescued by planes of the British Antarctic Survey.  Ironically, some of the conferees had called the BAS “leftist dupes” because the BAS had been warning of the eventual collapse of the some of the ice around the edge of Antarctica.

Chinese government forecloses on White House

In a surprise move, the Chinese government has foreclosed on the White House.  A minor official in the Chinese Department of Finance discovered that the U.S. Government had issued bonds to make extensive renovations to the White House, some of them dating back to the Time when Ronald Reagan had the solar panels removed.

The bonds were part of a large package of bonds that the Chinese government had bought from Bear Stearns several years ago.  The official discovered that the bonds were due in 2006 and no interest had been paid since 2000.

After long negotiations with the Bush Administration, the Chinese administration decided to foreclose.  They gave President Bush thirty days to vacate the White House.  The Chinese government hasn’t said what they will do with the property, but many speculate that the Chinese will make it their embassy.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Oso, Washington mudslide: sometimes I don’t like to be proven right

I have been wondering if the disastrous mudslide in Oso, Washington was caused by excessive logging.  Could it have been only that there was far more rain than normal?  My concern was affirmed by Timothy Egan, “A Mudslide, Foretold”,”, New York Times, 2014-03-29.

Twenty-five years ago, in the same valley, he witnessed a mudslide from over-logging.  The hill above Oso had possibly been logged beyond the legal limit.

I just can’t write anything more at the moment about this predictable catastrophe.  I’ve written before about short-term profit and few are taking up Pete Seeger’s chorus, “When will they ever learn?”.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Who decides elections?

Somebody out-of-state spending millions on attack ads,

Or millions of in-state voters spending a few minutes to vote for what they believe.

Dollars don’t vote.  People who show up do!

Corporations - the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing

For at least three months, Apple has included Numbers and Pages (spreadsheet and document programs) in its free list of Apps in the App store.  However, if one scrolls over the name of the App, “$19.99” appears.  Has Apple decided that “free” means under $20?  Several people have made remarks about this in the review sections for these apps.  Is anybody in Apple reading these reviews?

The New York Times had a review of “Quip”, a document writing program for the Mac, iPad, and iTunes.  If I search for “Quip” in the App Store, I can’t find it.  If I search from iTunes, I find it.  The iTunes page that shows Quip has a header “App Store > Productivity > Quip”.  Looking through “All Productivity Apps” in the App Store, I do not find Quip among the Qs.

If Apple or any other large corporation cannot be bothered with fixing these little but obvious glitches, can we be sure that they will fix big glitches that cost us (and even other large corporations) hours of frustration?

Quip is nowhere near a complete document program, but it is good for two or more people to collaborate on a document.  As I type on my laptop I can see the text showing on my wife’s desktop.

As for Pages and Numbers, I think I’ll wait a year or two or three for when I upgrade my devices and these programs are included.

Minimum wage, inflation, and personal experience

My first wage job that I remember was at Saywell Drug in Cleveland, Ohio.  I probably started in the summer of 1951 after I quit my paper route.  I started at fifty cents an hour.  This was a low-skill entry job.  I was a soda jerk, stocker, and small-item cashier.

Using the US Inflation Calculator, anything I bought for fifty cents would now cost $4.50.

Note: these figures were requested on March 16, 2014.  A week later, many were a few cents higher.

I had a couple other jobs in that range.  Then in late fall 1954 I started at Kroger’s as a stock clerk and bagger.  My starting union-negotiated salary was $1.05.  A dinner at a small diner then would cost $9.13 now.

When I flunked out of Case Institute of Technology in January 1958, I was earning $1.75 at the same Kroger’s store.  Anything I bought with an hour’s wage then would cost $14.16 now.  I was also a relief cashier on weekends.

No Kroger store had any full-time openings then.  I eventually was hired as “third man” at a new Pic’n’Pay.  Third man was sort of meaningless.  I was after the assistant manager in groceries only.  Produce and meat were separately run departments under the manager.   I was only a glorified stocker and bagger.  They wouldn’t let me be a cashier because I wasn’t bonded.  They also did their best to make sure I never worked close to 40 hours per week.  They would have to give me more benefits.  My wage, in a union store?  $1.54!  I had to get the help of a union business agent I knew to get my $1.75.  That $1.54 is now $12.46.  Don’t you think a fast-food manager has a harder job with more responsibilities than a grocery clerk?

When I went to Ohio Wesleyan in the fall of 1958, I worked my first year at a local Kroger store.  My wage was $1.54!!!  I made the mistake of not putting that in writing to the union steward.  He was sort of in the pocket of the manager and never really acted on my behalf.  When I called the union office in Columbus they pointed out that I had waited too long without filing a written claim.

In June 1960 we were married and I started graduate school back at Case.  I also had a graduate assistantship that paid $75 per week.  Our upstairs apartment cost $65 per month and $75 when we moved downstairs.  That $75 per week would be $592.69 in 2014 dollars.  If I supposedly worked 20 hours per week, that would be almost $30/hour.   I checked current graduate assistant salaries; the average is about $20,000/year or about $384/week.  I was treated like a king!  I was allowed nine credits per semester, I had use of the gym and library, and I had free parking in the lower lot.

I didn’t go on to a PhD program and opted for a full time job.  My interviews were with Sikorsky in Framingham  MA, GE in Syracuse NY, and Univac in St. Paul.  I don’t remember the exact offers from each, but it was something like $8,400, $7,900, and $8,100.  All things considered, I took the job nearest the Boundary Waters starting on Feb 3, 1963.  The things I could buy then with that money would cost $61,918.94 today.  Ah, a bright spot!  A computer software engineer with a master’s degree can start around $85,500!  But, the complexity of the work is far, far greater than when I started on mainframes that were giant toys compared to my iPhone.  No wonder the computer industry wants to increase the number of H-1B visas for programmers.

When personal computers came along I saw no future in mainframes and started my own one-person company.  I never implemented my grand visions and after over ten years tried getting a computer job.  Ha!  The checklist for “skills” was far longer than just a Masters in Mathematics.  I eventually wound up driving a school bus in the Twin Cities and then moved up to transit buses, aka city bus.  I started at $8.50/hour in 1995 and wound up with over $12/hour in 1999.  These translate into 2014 dollars as $13.05 and $18.42 or $27,144 and $38,314 per year.  According to, twenty-five percent of school bus drivers in Duluth earn over $35,623 per year.  I assume that those have to get a lot of charter work.

My last job was as a ski instructor.   I think my final pay in 2007 was around $8.00 per hour.  That would be $9.03 in 2014 dollars.  But the work was spotty depending on the weather and the people who show up.  I don’t think I ever got more than 30 hours per week.  I don’t know what the current pay is, but I did get nominally priced season passes for my wife and myself, a nifty jacket at a good price, and discounts at Ski Hut.

Other than the ski instructor, which often is a fun job, a computer programmer, which takes far more specialized learning than I had, and some school bus drivers, I think too many workers are worse off than I was way back then.

I think Adam Smith is being shown right again, it is lawful for the masters to organize to keep wages down, but it unlawful for the workers to organize to raise wages.

- Mel

You can find more of my thoughts at

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

End of our skiing?

From:  Mel Magree
End of our skiing?


The rumors have been flying about reduced hours for skiing.  One couple reported that the web site said that Spirit Mt. won't open until 1:00 on most weekdays.  I tried to find it on my iPhone without success this morning.  After much hunting on my laptop I found the tentative hours.  Sadly, the tentative plans are as they said.

2014/2015 Tentative Hours of Operation

Monday - Thursday  1pm to 8pm
Friday & Saturday  9am to 9pm
Sunday  9am to 5pm
Holidays  9am to 9pm (12/21 - 01/01, Jan. 17-18, Feb. 14-15)
Holiday Mondays 9am to 8pm (Jan. 19, Feb. 16)
If this is the case, we will not be renewing our season passes.  We are morning skiers as many other seniors are.  We like the less crowded conditions at 9:00 and even 10:00.  Many of those I spoke to feel the same.

As I left Spirit Mt. this morning, I noticed that all the near parking was filled and people were parking in the lower lot.  How many of these people will come at 1:00 instead?

You have probably considered many of the ramifications of this later opening.

Besides those who are morning skiers, will you be getting as many school groups?  Will they want to ski for an hour-and-a-half before they have to get on the bus to return to school?  Those same buses and drivers are going to have to be on routes at school closing.

How many people that would come up from the cities for a day will come for an afternoon of skiing?  It will be easier for them to go to Afton Alps.

What are the ramifications for the hospitality industry in Duluth?  Spirit Mt. is a "breeder reactor".  It's existence creates business for the city of Duluth that is not on Spirit Mt's books.

I hope you can come to a definite schedule for next year before April 15th, our last day to get the discounted season tickets.

Monday, March 24, 2014

No fires where there should be and one where there should not be

We have no wood heat in our cabin because of some problem with the chimney.  Why is another story.  I went to our cabin yesterday to help move that solution along.  When I was outside I was fine, but even with water boiling and a small electric heater, I never felt warm in the cabin.

Another task I had was to put the cover on the chipper we brought from servicing the previous week.  I forgot to bring the cover then.  The hopper was filled with snow and I thought I would blow it out before covering it.

I started up the chipper but the snow didn't seem to go down.  And then steam started coming from parts I didn't expect it and the engine started shaking.  Holey moley!  That's not steam.  That's smoke.  Then I see flame coming from the belt housing.  Throwing snow at it doesn’t help much.  I fetch the fire extinguisher from the cabin.  I takes me awhile to figure out how to make it work.  I aim under the housing and a cloud of noxious yellow stuff comes out.  Finally the flames are out and the extinguisher is empty.

Looking under the cover I could see the belt hanging down.  Now I'm going to have to take it back to have the belt replaced and any other repairs done.  I don't relish another 40+ mile drive at 40mph!

When I get home my wife reported that the furnace is going on and off and not giving any heat.  She also reported that with a loud bang the outside spigot started spewing water into the back yard.

We left a message with the plumber who installed it years ago.  We set up our one heater and started a fire in the fireplace.  My wife decided to stay downstairs and keep feeding the fire all night.

This morning the plumber came and checked several things but couldn't find anything wrong.  He then followed the gas line back to where it enters the house.  The valve near the wall was turned off!  I couldn't see how anybody could bump it and turn it off.

After the plumber left my wife looked at the valve and realized she had thought it was a water line to another outside faucet.  She had turned it off in case we had the same problem with faucet.

We did better than the old joke about a plumber charging $100 to fix a furnace with a single whack with a hammer.  One dollar to hit it and $99 for knowing where to hit it.  The plumber only charged us $40.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Memorable Shakespeare

A comic’s picture appears every week in the Budgeteer.  He has a silly hat and a silly expression.  How does such a comic turn into evil incarnate?  Brian Matuszak did it brilliantly in the Wise Fool Shakespeare production of Macbeth.

Matuszak portrayed Macbeth as moving from a loyal officer of the king to a wavering assassin to an indiscriminate killer, always torn between ambition and distrust of all who might stand in his way.  Given that the costumes were of 1930s Chicago, I found it easy to compare Matuszak’s Macbeth to an ambitious but incompetent CEO.  Rather than look at his own mismanagement he fires anyone who proposes contrary suggestions.

I was almost ready to walk out after the first act because the manic actions of Matuszak as Macbeth were almost unbearable.  Fortunately, I knew the outcome and stayed to be mesmerized by the slow but inevitable approach of Macbeth’s doom.  Matuszak brilliantly showed Macbeth’s rising fears with much pacing, quavering hands, and doubting “inner” voices.

I have been mesmerized by Shakespeare’s plays since at least the ninth grade in the Cleveland Public Schools.  I think we read “As You Like It” in the ninth grade.  I know we read “Julius Caesar” in the tenth grade and both “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” in the twelfth grade.  I had the same English teacher, Miss Palmer, for the last three plays.

I hated the memorization parts but I liked the reading approach.  We first read an act a day as homework and then reread the play a few scenes at a time.  We would also read passages aloud in class.

I’ll never forget the Hi BA’er (High School Born Again’er) who refused to read Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!”  I don’t know why it didn’t bother him to read the words of a murderer but it did to read that one curse word!  Miss Palmer had to recite those words so he would continue.

About fifty years ago I ordered the Yale University collection of Shakespeare from the Book of the Month Club.  When I received it, I discovered that the cover of the Sonnets was upside down.  Or was the text upside down?  I sent that book back with a sonnet.  I got a “proper” copy back but no acknowledgment of my writing “skill” and I didn’t keep a copy of my sonnet.

I have yet to read all the plays, but every so often I pick out one from the long faded row and read one I haven’t read before or reread one.

Where has the space gone?  I got so carried away with the above that I’ve used up half my space already.  I’ll have to dash through some of my other Shakespeare experiences.

I’m sure I’ve seen several stage productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but a few stand out.  We saw “The Tempest” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and more.  We had season tickets and the Guthrie generally did one Shakespeare play every season.

One of the most interesting settings was “Much Ado about Nothing” on the shore of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.  The actors had to contend with the jets flying overhead.

The movie versions have stuck better in my memory.

One of the first is Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth”, which was financed by Playboy.  I’ll let you look for more of the details in Wikipedia.  Besides the nudity and violence, the scene that I remember best is Macbeth placing his feet in the deep-set footprints in a coronation stone.

I remember three movie versions of “Hamlet”, Laurence Olivier, 1948, Mel Gibson, 1990, and Kenneth Branagh, 1996.  The difference that struck me was that Olivier was declaiming on stage and Gibson and Branagh were acting in elaborate movie sets.  (Matuszak was acting on a very plain stage.)

Franco Zefferelli directed a very good version of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1968.

I remember seeing a black and white version of “Merchant of Venice”, but I don’t remember when or by whom.  While looking up “Merchant of Venice”, I did find a Wikipedia entry for Lois Weber, an actress, screenwriter, producer, and director.  Reading that entry was a fascinating diversion.

When the Plaza Mr. Movies closed, I bought a copy of Kenneth Branagh’s “As You Like It”.  Bryce Dallas Howard plays a very perky and likable Rosalind.  Her delivery of “I will marry no woman” has really stuck in my mind.  I should watch it again one of these years.

How many operas have been based on Shakespeare?  “Othello”, “Macbeth”, “Falstaff”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Merry Wives of Windsor”, “Antony and Cleopatra”, and on and on.  They have been in English, Italian, French, Russian, German, and probably more.

Then there are the spinoffs on stage and film.

“Kiss me, Kate” is a play within a play; the actors playing out the story of “The Taming of the Shrew” on stage and in “real” life.

Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” is a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”.  At least in this version “Juliet” walked off after the death of “Romeo” rather than kill herself.

Akira Kurusawa’s “Ran” is a retelling of “King Lear” in a Japanese setting.  It is a good telling of good intentions going very badly.

“All the world is a stage” and Shakespeare appears in all the world!

This was also printed in the Reader Weekly, 2014-03-20 at

Do I really have proof of my citizenship?

Republican-controlled state governments are demanding proof of citizenship in order to vote.  But how many of us really have rock-solid proof of citizenship?

Supposedly a state-issued photo-ID will suffice, but some of these states refuse to recognize college photo-IDs.  But what kind of proof of citizenship is a photo-ID like a driver's license?  My Minnesota driver's license has no indication of citizenship.  My old Swedish driver's license did indirectly show that I was not a Swedish citizen.  My person-nummer had a digit that showed I was a foreigner.

I did have a passport but I let it lapse because I wasn't interested in flying anymore.  I do have a passcard for travel to Canada, but I may let that lapse.

Supposedly a birth certificate is sufficient to show citizenship.  Mine is now so tattered that it is bordering on unreadable.  How do I get a birth certificate?  I write to the jurisdiction where I was born.  A check and the name on the birth certificate will get my a new copy in a few weeks.  But how does that jurisdiction even know I'm the person who is described on the birth certificate?  There is no picture on a birth certificate and even if there were, it would take some very detailed knowledge of human development to positively match the new-born with the adult.

I think "proof of citizenship" boils down to "are you going to vote for us?"

Having seized control of many governments because too many people didn't show up in recent elections, the Republicans are afraid of being voted out of office.  To do so, they are doing their damnedst to ensure that those who have any hint of opposing them have a hard time voting.

It happened in the South, and now that the South has taken over the Republican Party, they are busy thinking up schemes to be sure they stay in power everywhere else.

I'm sure many of my regular readers are tiring of my harping on this, but I wish they would join the chorus.  The best campaign finance reform is for all of us who don't like negative ads and other tricks to show up for each and every election.  Big money has lost big in some campaigns.  Negative ads have given a negative result to those losing advertisers.

Show up!  Show them your ID!  Show them who is boss!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Are you still writing for the Reader?

I am often asked this by long-time acquaintances.  Because I’ve been writing the “Party of One” almost regularly since early October 2013, I’m tempted to ask in return, “When did you stop reading the Reader?”  But I don’t.

I appreciate those acquaintances that tell me that they like a column, but please tell me which one.  I am thinking about three columns at the same time – the one that is already in print, the one I have submitted for the next issue, and the next one that I have sketched out.  I may have forgotten the column published two weeks ago.

How do I decide what to write about?  My stock answer is “Writing what I damn well please since 1999.”  I have this on my “business” card.  What damn well pleases me can be on almost anything: current politics, news stories, computers and other gadgets, every day mundane observations, or just whimsy.

Sometimes the ideas almost flow from my fingertips.  Last week’s “Free market in telecommunications?” was one.  I think I wrote it in two sittings.  Sometimes I have to do quite a bit of research.  “How folks change rivers” was one.  Sometimes I have to pull ideas out of my head; ideas can be like teeth, loose but not coming out.  This column is one of those.

Writing about politics is rather easy.  Sometimes the political class has some good ideas; sometimes it has some really, really bad ideas.  Unfortunately, the bad ideas get more coverage than the good ideas.  Good ideas do get coverage, but too often good ideas get attacked more often than explained because the good ideas don’t fit somebody’s idea of a “perfect world”.

Once upon a time, I was active in the Minnesota Republican Party.  Then there was Ronald Reagan.  Fortunately, there were still the likes of Rep. Bill Frenzel and to-be Gov. Arne Carlson, politicians who were more concerned with resolving problems than promoting an ideology.  I have yet to see a Congressional newsletter like Bill Frenzel’s.  He wrote critically about what Congress did, not what he did.  Almost without exception, Congressional newsletters and websites are photo-ops showing how “hard” the representative is “working” for his or her “hard-working” constituents.

Promoting ideology now seems to be the only politics that is acceptable, no matter the party.

This situation does make it easier to write a column.  As the adage states, ”It’s easier to criticize than offer solutions.”

I do try to offer solutions now and then, but few people seem to take them seriously.  I should have a bit of humility though, if they were such great solutions shouldn’t my blog get more attention from American readers and less from Russian reverse spammers and shouldn’t my writings spread wider than a weekly newspaper in a small city?

One aspect of our lives that is easier to criticize than offer solutions is technology; whether it is all the glitches in the rollout of the government health insurance or it is all the problems we have trying to have our computers and other gadgets perform consistently.

I use my computer and gadgets for a large variety of tasks – from writing this column to preparing taxes.  Certain software also allows me to have the same data on my computer as well as on my gadgets.  For example, I can use email on my laptop, my iPad, and my iPhone.  A copy of every received and sent email will be on all three.

Almost every program I use does far more than the programs I wrote for the Macintosh over 25 years ago.  I consider my programs of then almost as toys.  Because modern programs are far more complex than mine of yesteryear, that complexity leads to a longer problem list than my nine-page problem list when I folded my company.

Sometimes I write a bit of wordplay.  “You can write haiku” was one of these.  Writing that column was almost a word torrent.  One thing led to another.  The only hard part was making sure I had the 5-7-5 syllable form.  I think I missed on one or two.

Since then I came up with a Japanese haiku from my very small Japanese vocabulary.

Zero, ichi, ni, san, shi!

I don’t understand!
Zero, uh-one, two, three, four!
I do understand.

Both versions are a stretch.  Technically the “masu” at the end is two syllables, but most Westerners only hear “mas”.  I had to use “uh-one” to follow the same number pattern.

Every so often an acquaintance asks me to write about some topic; generally he or she is asking me to report on the topic.  Sorry, I don’t do reporting.  I’ll leave that to those who want to interview lots of people and sift through the various views.

The closest that I came to that was “Does ‘environmentally friendly’ copper mining exist?”  I found more sources about this topic than I would ever read.  Some of the sources gave reasons that it does; some gave reasons that it doesn’t.  Every “pro” source I found was countered by a source, neutral or “anti”, that showed otherwise.

Will I keep writing for the Reader?  You betcha!  I have a long list of notes in my computer and on scraps of paper that can provide material for several years to come.

Now I ask, are you still reading the Reader?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Malaysia Airlines and problem solving

It is very hard to imagine the anguish of the relatives of those on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, but we should give some slack to those involved in trying to determine what happened to the flight.

I’ve been involved in several computer situations in which crucial information was not available at the outset.  It was only when the right question was asked or the right information was volunteered did a solution become apparent.  All of these situations were much simpler than the tasks facing the Malaysian and other investigators.

My first memorable lacking-information problem was in Sweden.  One customer’s mainframe kept crashing.  We looked at memory dumps, we asked questions, we had meetings, nothing became obvious.  It was only when I had a copy of a program that often seemed to be present when the computer crashed that I was able to take some more deductive steps.  The customer had not upgraded their software from a version that had a memory violation.  That program crashed at other sites with the same software.  Thus, the memory protection of the crashing computer was faulty.  The technicians fixed the memory protection problem, the subject program crashed, and the customer upgraded the software.

My latest memorable lacking-information problem was in Duluth last fall.  The keyboard on my MacBook Pro locked up.  None of the proposed solutions in the user community seemed to last for long.  I took my computer to the Geek Squad.  They kept it for a few days and found nothing wrong.  I brought it home and the keyboard locked up again.  After a bit of head scratching, I realized that the tech shut down all my applications before testing it.  Then I figured out that MicroSoft’s Outlook was the problem.  I reorganized Outlook’s database and the problem went away.

I hope those investigating the Malaysian Airlines crash find that crucial missing clue soon, but the ocean in that area is bigger than one laptop or one 1970s mainframe.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Free market in telecommunications?

A free market does not exist in telecommnications.

Consider that a free market
– Has many buyers and sellers
– Both buyers and sellers are free to enter and leave the market
– Both buyers and sellers have all the information they need to make a decision
– All costs are covered in the transaction, that is, there are no externalities

Let’s start with the last because it has some relevance to current politics.  What are the externalities of telecommunications?  There are the overhead lines, the underground cables, and the radio waves zipping through our bodies.  Most of us don’t seem to be concerned with the last; we’ve had radio, TV, and radar signals going through us for decades.  The overhead lines are not very aesthetic but we put up with them.  Similarly, the underground cables don’t seem to be a problem until one has to be dug up.

The externality that is raising the most discussion is the use of copper wires.  However, this need is being reduced by the use of fiber optics and wireless communications.

The telecommunications market certainly has more sellers than it used to, some in competition with one another for the buyers’ business.  Still, given that the buyers’ choices in any given area are limited to less than a dozen, the market is more of an oligopoly than a free market.

A few of us could go off all the nets and save a bundle of money.  But most of us depend on telecommunications for communicating with friends, family, and emergency assistance.  Few businesses would succeed without telephones and Internet access.  They need it for marketing, sales, and customer support.

All the information you need to make a buy decision?  Hah!  You really have to dig around to get a detailed quote on what a particular package of services will really cost you.  Ads are all over about Internet service for $19.95 for five years guaranteed.  But do you know how much you’ll pay for installation, service fees, and taxes?  Do you know how fast the service will be?  Do you know how much faster service will cost?  Even if you sign up for service, the customer service department can’t tell you how much service fees and taxes will be.  Gosh, if the billing computers have this information, why don’t the customer service computers have this information?

About the only company that is upfront about the costs of services is Consumer Cellular.  Its web page has the cost of the basic service, the cost of each upgrade, and you can do it all online.  Like all others, they don’t have a calculator for service fee and taxes.

As with much of my writing, this examination was started by my own recent experience.  I’ve wanted to have faster Internet speeds for some time, I wanted caller ID on our home phone because probably three-quarters of our incoming calls are junk calls, and I wanted better Internet access at our cabin.  I thought our best arrangement would be to drop CenturyLink for phone and Internet at home, get a Home Base phone from Consumer Cellular, and get a portable modem from AT&T.

Well, the AT&T modem didn’t deliver much speed at our house and so I returned it.  I use my Consumer Cellular iPhone to periodically check the AT&T speed.  That speed has improved but is not consistent; sometimes it is way better than the CenturyLink DSL speed, sometimes it is worse.

What if I upgrade my DSL speed?  How much does it cost?  Well, the “free market” CenturyLink won’t tell me on their website.  I am supposed to call for that info.   Once upon a time in the days when we had Qwest, the website offered three different speeds with prices.  When we got tired of 256kbps, we made a few clicks and we had faster speed in a day or two.

Finding the prices elsewhere is a bit of a chore.  Over half the hits are for CenturyLink web pages or for CenturyLink reseller pages.  I think on the second search page I found a site that gave detailed pricing (without taxes and fees, of course).  It would cost us “$5.00” more to go from a nominal 7Mbps to 12, “$15.00” to 20, and “$25.00” to 40.  My wife balked at even the upgrade to 12Mpbs because she thought things were fine.

As for the cost of getting caller ID, it is the same story.  One cannot get just caller ID, but has to get a package of many unneeded features.  Could I find the cost?  Of course not!  It’s a “free market” and companies are free to do as they please.

As I was reviewing the many pages that I had opened in my quest, I found one with a long list of entries complaining about CenturyLink service.  Of course, those who are satisfied don’t post on such sites, but the number of instances of overbilling, not sending any statement, having a collection agency demand payment, of undelivered service, of repeated calls for non-functioning or poorly function service, and on and on.  Do I even want to make even a small change in my service?

My final set of changes for telecommunications was to have my Consumer Cellular iPhone become a hotspot (no charge, done in about 15 minutes) and upgrade to the max of 2GB of traffic.  That should allow us to use our iPads at the cabin to read the newspapers.  Or even write this column at our cabin and send it before the deadline.  When it gets warm enough for my wife to want to go there again.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Military training from outside

Why is an outside military needed to train a country's military on fighting rebels?  If the rebels are so effective against government troops, could it be that the government troops are either unmotivated or corrupt?  In the case of Afghanistan, why has it taken 12 years to train Afghan troops in counterinsurgency.  Shouldn't those who were trained 12 years ago have enough expertise to train others?  Consider that many of the outside trainers had no military experience at the outset of the war in Afghanistan.

From what I've read, the Afghani soldiers are in it for the money, honest or otherwise, or because they were drafted.  Too many of them have no loyalty to the government.

I think U.S. policy long ago should have been: Karzai! Shape up or we ship out!

See also “Insurgencies, outside forces, and good government”.

Monday, March 03, 2014

How many seconds in a minute?

According to Apple, there are ten seconds in a minute!  Maybe even less.

Last week I downloaded and installed the latest Mavericks update on my Mac laptop.  Near the end of the lengthy process, it displayed “10 seconds left” for some part or another.  Twenty seconds later, the display was “10 seconds left” (or was it remaining?)  And again at thirty seconds on up to sixty seconds.  I don’t remember how soon after that time was displayed I started tracking the time, and I don’t remember how long after I had noted sixty seconds had passed before I stopped tracking.

But whatever, is this the lauded corporate “efficiency” that government supposedly lacks?  Whatever else is going on in the operating system that is inefficient.  I do know that Microsoft products have been getting slower to load.  I can almost go downstairs to pour a second cup of coffee while waiting for a spreadsheet to open.  This is even true of spreadsheets that don’t have a lot of data.

And of course, there are all the user complaints that seem to go on for years without resolution.

I do know from personal experience that not all problems are resolvable and that some take a long time to get enough data to solve.  In the sixties at Univac I was part of the small team that maintained the FORTRAN compiler.  We had a user report (number 498, I think) that we never solved.  Our main problem was trying to figure out what had happened on a computer we had no direct access to and not enough information to ask the right questions.  We never had another user report with the same problem.

On the other hand, I see complaints about the same problems year after year in the support communities for Apple and Microsoft.

What is the critical mass for these problems such that the big corporations will put enough resources into resolving these issues?

Here’s a radical idea!  For every unsolved problem a company has, the CEO should have his or her pay docked ten dollars per day.  Let’s be generous, and only count weekdays that are not holidays.  Would these problems go away sooner?

What about docking the CEOs pay for every day that false advertising is present.  Apple has made downloading Mavericks free to encourage people to move away from older operating systems.  Supposedly Numbers, Pages, and Keynote are free.  These are competitors to Microsoft’s Excel, Write, and Power Point.  These three Apple products are listed in a Top Ten Free downloads in the App Store.  However, if you place the cursor next to them, “$19.99” appears rather than “Free”.

Many users have complained about this for three months or more!  Is this another case of Adam Smith’s warning about trusting those who live by profit and have deceived and oppressed the public?

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Arizona women demonstrate against “free exercise of religion”

Fortunately, this action was not needed because Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the amendment to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The purpose of the amendment was “Modifies the definition of exercise of religion and allows a person to assert a free exercise claim or defense in a judicial proceeding regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding.”

The supposed intent of the amendment was to allow businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians if the owner’s religious views disapproved of gays and lesbians.

Imagine the shock some of the female legislators would have had when a Muslim shopkeeper refused them service because their heads weren’t covered and their skirts were too short.  Imagine the shock of all when a strict Muslim or Orthodox Jew insisted that men and women sit in separate rooms in his restaurant.

Imagine the outcry from “patriotic” Americans if a strongly pacifist Quaker refused service to any past or present military personnel, in or out of uniform.

The list of religious and philosophical ideas that call for people to resist certain actions goes on and on.  Sorry, we all have to get along and accept behaviors which we do not approve of.  The only legitimate resistance are behaviors that impinge on our physical space.  Even making a list of those is a difficult task.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Welfare queens are small potatoes compared to welfare kings

Some politicians love to cite that some people on welfare are driving Cadillacs.  Therefore all welfare is a waste of taxpayer money.  My first question is if the “welfare queen’s” “Cadillac” is a late model or a 10-15 year old Cadillac with 200,000 miles.  My second question is how many people that truly need help would be hurt because politicians assumed they were all driving Cadillacs.

Some of these same politicians love to give barrels of cash to multi-millionaire CEOs as direct subsidies to continue doing business as they are or to move from one place to another.  Why does a billionaire need a subsidy to build a stadium for which he will take most of the profits?  Why does a company need a subsidy to move from one city to another?  Either there is a sound business reason to move, like closer to markets, suppliers, or labor pool or there isn’t.

The welfare kings are also leeches in that they expect a pool of trained labor they did not train and an infra-structure they did not build.  And they holler loudly if anyone expects them to pay taxes to have these.  And they complain loudly if anyone expects them to clean up the messes they create, like harmful particles in the air and toxins in the water.