Friday, August 29, 2014

Major Food Groups

Originally published in the
Northland Reader
now called the
Reader Weekly
Duluth, Minnesota
February 17, 2000

When a friend drinks Mountain Dew he often exclaims, "Ahh, two of the major food groups, caffeine and sugar!"  I wondered what the other major food groups were.  After two weeks of lengthy research with my wife and several friends, I completed the list with fat, alcohol, and chocolate.

Caffeine is the jump start to the day.  That first cup of coffee gets our eyes open.  It provides enough sleep banishment to get us out the door.  For others, several cups of coffee are needed to negotiate the drive to work, to stay awake through boring meetings, or to keep at a report or other task.  Soft drinks with caffeine are a good substitute.  Coffee or tea are also a good roundoff to dinner.

Sugar is an important fuel for our bodies.  Like caffeine it is an important day starter.  Sugar in coffee, on cereal, or in syrup on pancakes gets us going in the morning.  A donut midmorning provides momentum for the rest of the morning.  Cookies after school provide kids with energy for their games and homework.  Sugar in dessert is another good roundoff to dinner.

Fat is another important fuel for our bodies.  Fat also lubricates our joints and keeps our skin supple.  Fat is even an essential flavor.  Steaks, hamburgers, or sausages are the centerpiece of any meal.  Sour cream and blue cheese make an excellent salad dressing.  Butter on pancakes, bread, or potatoes seems to make the day go smoother.  Whipped cream on strawberries make an excellent roundoff to dinner.

Alcohol is an important relaxant.  The two-martini lunch provides an important slowdown from the hectic pace of the office.  Beer or whisky before dinner help us reflect on the day.  Wine helps us linger over dinner.  A glass of any one of a number of spirits or liqueurs, which the Italians call "un digestivo," provides another excellent roundoff to dinner.

Chocolate is for our souls what the other four food groups are for our bodies.  Fine chocolate makes a fine life.  Hot chocolate for breakfast helps us gather our thoughts for the day.  A chocolate donut midmorning provides a good break from work.  A chocolate brownie after lunch prepares us for the afternoon.  A chocolate candy bar gives us a morale boost to finish our workday.  A piece of fine chocolate melting slowly in our mouths is the perfect roundoff to dinner.

Many of our favorite foods contain two or more of these major food groups.  There is at least one dish that contains all five: Coffee Chocolate Rum Ice Cream!  Enjoy!

You Are Smarter than You Think

Originally published in
Northland Reader
now the
Reader Weekly
Duluth, Minnesota
February 3, 2000
Do you think in the same way all the time?  Or, do you look at things in different ways?  This article is a little test of your willingness to think creatively and to try different things.

I recently attended a dinner at which a speaker gave this exercise.
Pick any number from 1 to 9.  Multiply it by 9.  If the result is a two-digit number, add the two digits together.  Subtract 5 from the result.

Think of each letter of the alphabet as a number; that is A is 1, B is 2, and so on.  Match the number you had after subtracting 5 with the corresponding letter of the alphabet.

Think of a country name beginning with that letter.
Think of an animal name beginning with the last letter of the country’s name.
Think of a color name beginning with the last letter of the animal’s name.
Let me take out my magic wand, tap you on the head three times, and say that you thought of Denmark, kangaroo, and orange.

Now, let’s test your creativity.

First, did you ask yourself why the number part of the trick works?  Did you start juggling numbers in your head to prove it should work?  If you didn’t, your first lesson in creativity is to demonstrate why it works.  It may take several minutes of effort, but you can do it if you are willing to apply a little elementary arithmetic, a bit of abstraction to symbols, and a some small changes in viewpoint.

Secondly, did you ask yourself why I thought you would answer Denmark, kangaroo, and orange?  Are these the only country, animal, and color that begin with these letters?  Or are these more readily known than other examples?  If these aren’t the only country, animal, and color beginning with these letters, did you search your memory for any others?

Why not put the Northland Reader down right now, get out a piece of scratch paper and a pen, and work on these two problems?  First, prove that the number part of the exercise will work.  Second, list some other sequences of countries, animals, and colors in which the country name begins with D, the animal name begins with the last letter of the country name, and the color name begins with the last letter of the animal name.

OK, did you get anywhere?

The easy answer for the number question is the “rule of nine”.  Because we multiplied the original number by 9, then the second number is divisible by 9.  We will come back to 9 as our next result by applying the rule of nine.  That is, to see if any number is divisible by 9, add its digits together.  If the result is two or more digits long, add those digits together.  Repeat until you have a single digit.  If that digit is 9, then the number you applied the rule to is divisible by 9.  Since we started adding the digits together in the trick after we multiplied by 9, then the result of our addition has to be 9.

This method also applies to numbers divisible by 3, but the single digit may be 3, 6, or 9.  For now, we’ll stick with 9.

The harder part is now to explain why the rule of nine works.  Our first step is to introduce a bit of symbolism; let good old X stand for our original number.  Our first step is to multiply by 9, giving us 9X.  Now we have to make a little jump in viewpoint; 9 is 10-1, and so we have (10-1)X.  We can rewrite this as 10X - X.

That doesn’t look very promising.  Let’s try another jump in viewpoint; let Y be X - 1 or conversely, let X be Y+1.  We now have 10(Y+1) - X.  Why not replace both X’s with Y+1?  Because we need another jump in viewpoint.  First, rewrite our formula as 10Y + 10 - X.  Now let’s replace 10 - X with Z giving 10Y + Z.  If we add Y and Z using their equivalents expressed with X, we should get 9.  Here we go!  Y + Z is X - 1 + 10 - X which we can reorder as X - X + 10 - 1 which is 9!  Finally, subtracting 5 gets us 4, and D is the fourth letter of the alphabet.

To see it better, let’s put it in the compact but excruciating form we had to do in junior high algebra:

Assume we have a number 9X where X is any number from 1 to 9.
 9X = (10-1)X
 (10-1)X = 10X - X
 Let Y = X - 1
 X = Y + 1
 10X - X = 10(Y + 1) - X
 10(Y + 1) - X = 10Y + 10 - X
 Let Z = 10 - X
 10Y + 10 - X = 10Y + Z
 Y + Z = (X -1) + (10 - X)
 (X - 1) + (10 - X) = X - X - 1 + 10
 X - X - 1 + 10 = 9
Did you have difficulty following this?  Guess what?  I had difficulty coming up with it.  It took me several minutes of trial and error, spread over two days, to get all the steps right.  But Thomas Edison said that creativity is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, and he went through a lot of glass to be the first to create a useful light bulb!

The second problem is a bit easier if you read a lot.  Did you also come with koala bear and red?  How about Dhubai, ibex, and hmm!  Oops!  Dubayy is a city in the United Arab Emirates.  Creativity can make errors.  How about Deutschland, deer, and red?  These were my thoughts at the dinner.

Curiosity, an important part of creativity, led me to the dictionary and atlas.  For colors other than orange we have olive and ochre.  Starting with countries, we have Dahomey, yak, and hmm?  Or, Dominican Republic, cat, and teal, or cougar and red, or chimpanzee and emerald, or …

Space doesn’t allow me to fill in my “hmm”s.

If you got this far, you know creativity is not that hard.  Unleash yours!  If you have a dull job, creativity may not get you a better job,  but it may make your job a bit more interesting.  If you have some tough fix-it problems at home, a fresh look at them may lead you to a solution or at least a workaround.  Finally, by looking past the figures and ideas in sound bites and headlines, you may gain a better perspective on many of the problems that confront us as a society.

Who’s to blame for high taxes? Try looking in the mirror

Originally published in the
Northland Reader
now the
Reader Weekly
January 20, 2000

"Cut taxes!"  "Reduce spending!" Hardly a week goes by that we don't hear a politician or a fellow citizen utter these two paired slogans. But do we know anyone who is willing to make the hard decisions that will bring about these two much desired goals?  Though both parties use these slogans, little of substance is done because we demand so much of our government -- from sweeping streets to catching criminals to projecting power around the world.

Next time we complain about taxes, let's make a short list of government services we expect.  If we compare our list with somebody else's, it probably won't match.  Let's say we have libraries on our list and the other person doesn't.  That person might have snowplowing on their list but we don't.

Now, should one person be taxed for libraries but not for snowplowing and the other person for snowplowing but not for libraries?  What would that other person say when we drive on the newly plowed streets?  Would they call us a free-loader?  What would we say if that other person decided to borrow a book from the library?  Would we call them a free-loader?  In order to get some of the services on our list we have to compromise and agree to pay for some of the things on the other person's list. 

Now things really become sticky.  How do we pay for all the things on both our lists?  We could pay the library part of the cost of the books that we borrow.  But what about some child who can't pay for the books?  Should we deny that child a marvelous learning opportunity?

For many of the services we would like from government, it would be a very
complex and costly accounting problem to bill citizens individually according to the benefits they receive.  Therefore, a broad-based tax is more efficient.

So, we have decided we will have our government perform a long list of services and that we will all pay for these services through taxes.  How do we apportion these taxes?

If we assume that we all have access to all benefits, then each of us could pay a fixed sum, say $2,500 per year.  A family of four with an income of $20,000 would pay $10,000 in taxes, leaving them with $10,000 per year to spend on other things.  On the other hand, a family of four with an income of $100,000 would also pay $10,000 in taxes, leaving them with $90,000 per year for other things. Just considering the two families, the paying of the tax has caused the ratio of their incomes to go from 5 to 1 before taxes to 9 to 1 after taxes!  Is this fair just for the privilege of having access to government services?

If a lump sum tax is not fair, would a percentage tax be fair?  Let's suppose that we would pay 10 percent of our income in taxes.  So those earning $20,000 would pay $2,000 and those earning $100,000 would pay $10,000!  This would leave each income group with 90 percent of its income. All but the family of four with the $20,000 income would complain that a proportional tax was unfair to them.  Adam Smith, the "father" of "free markets", supported this scheme when he wrote in The Wealth of Nations:  "The subjects of every state ought to contribute toward the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state."

Modern governments have taken "respective abilities" one step farther with progressive taxation, under which people making more money pay a higher proportion of taxes.  For example, a family making $20,000 might be taxed at eight percent while a family making $100,000 might be taxed at twelve percent.  If the less well-off family earned $1,000 more per year, how much would the utility of that $1,000 be? That is, could they eat a bit better or rent a less cramped apartment?  If the family with a $100,000 annual income earned $1,000 more per year, how much would the utility of that $1,000 be to them?  Would they eat out more often or rent a more luxurious apartment?  Or would it be like a blip in their investments?

If we assume the less well-off family used its extra $1,000 to buy more necessities and the more well-off family used its extra $1,000 to buy more luxuries, then a proportional tax would create a heavier burden on the less well-off family. We might say that each family's burden is more equal under a progressive tax.

No matter which tax system we choose, somebody is going to be unhappy. Since we have chosen a mix of proportional and progressive, just about everybody is unhappy.  We have local property taxes which are proportional using property as a proxy for income.  We have state and federal income taxes which are progressive.  And we have a number of other taxes levied by every level of government from the city to the federal; most of them are proportional.

Recently Duke Skorich wrote that the city of Duluth wanted the state of Minnesota to pay part of the cost of a recreational area.  The Duluth News-Tribune recently noted that the federal government was paying part of the cost of the renovation of the Old Downtown.  Congress included in its final budget bill some of the costs for new buses in the Twin Cities.

Why does this "bumping up" of costs happen?  Mostly because of us.  The more local our elected representatives are, the more we complain about any tax they may impose to fund the benefits we ask for.  Because we think somebody else will be paying, we ask the next higher level of elected officials to fund our favorite projects.  As the levels increase, it becomes easier for our representative to get projects for us and in turn blame other people's representatives for the high taxes!

So, "Cut taxes!" and "Reduce spending!"  really means "Cut our taxes!" and "Reduce your spending!"  But it will never happen until we change it to "Let's reduce our spending, and then we can cut our taxes."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sprechen vous svenska?

Let me guess.  You may be one of those who claim to never have been good at foreign languages, but I bet you know the meaning of each of the words in the title of this article.  Not only that, you probably know which language each is from.

Maybe the reason you are “not good” at foreign languages is that you didn’t care for the way you were taught a particular language.  Maybe you rebelled at the way it was taught and didn’t let it soak in and use it.

I myself have had mixed feelings about each of my language experiences.  For example, I forgot almost everything I learned in high school Latin, but I retained enough of my two years of college French to read books, magazines, and newspapers and to have simple conversations.

The first time it was really important was when I transferred to Europe as a Univac employee.  Supposedly I was to move to Italy.  I got an Italian grammar book and started studying from it.  “Oh, wait, before you go to Italy you will spend several weeks in Basel, Switzerland.”  So, I got a German grammar book and started studying German.

I had all my travel arrangements made for me.  The last leg was a train from Zurich to Basel.  When I got to Basel, there was nobody to meet me.  Where do I go from here on a Saturday?  I knew we were to work at Sandoz, the big pharmaceutical company, and so I looked up Sandoz at a public phone.  When I reached Sandoz the guard spoke only German and French.  As best I could I explained my situation in French.  He said he would look up the Univac people in the computer room.  Within an hour or so one of the hardware guys came and got me.  It was only once I was in the hotel that I met the software guys I was to work with.

I have many anecdotes about learning German (Hochdeutsch) and Schweizer Deutsch, two different languages.  Ja jo! Wie goht’s!

One, I learned enough German to read some of the newspapers and to read the directions on starting the computer - drucken… (push…)

Two, I didn’t learn enough German to get in and out of East Berlin on my own.  The end story is that I had ten East German marks I was not supposed to leave with.  My Swiss companions were in a discussion with the guard behind the counter.  I kept swiveling my head towards whoever was speaking.  Finally, the guard looked at me and said, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”  I replied, “Nein!”  That cracked everyone up.  After I put my ten marks in the Red Cross jar, we were on our way out through Checkpoint Charlie.

When I finally arrived in Italy, I slowly learned more Italian.  It didn’t help that our work language was English.  I did start reading Italian newspapers and books and speaking Italian where I could.  I spoke it to my barber and I think I bought my car using Italian.  One difficulty was at some office where I wasn’t getting across to the clerks.  One exclaimed, “Questi stranieri!” (“These foreigners”).  I understood her, but I don’t remember if I made any reply.

After two years in Italy, I requested and got a transfer to Sweden.  Again I bought a grammar book or two and started reading newspapers.  Newspapers are wonderful for learning foreign languages because of the names and events in the news and the large number of similar words.  By my second year in Sweden, I disappointed a small group I was to supervise by stating that we would speak Swedish.  My rationale was they had many chances to speak English, I had few for Swedish.  After a year, many of my colleagues said I spoke “flyttande Svenska” (fluent Swedish), even those who didn’t report to me.  On the other hand, there were many who disagreed.

When I came back to the States, I decided to take German at a community college.  I added a couple more semesters when I returned to Minnesota.  Darned if I can remember much of what I learned in class.

This same phenomenon happened when I took Russian long before I left for Europe.  I still had notions of getting a PhD, and one of the requirements was to have some familiarity with two foreign languages.  I took a year of Russian in summer school.  I did B or better work, but I didn’t enjoy it.  The basis for each lesson was a short conversation we were supposed to memorize and recite with a classmate.  I’ll never forget the first sentence of the first conversation: “Привет Нина! Куда ви идёте?”  “Hi, Nina!  Where are you going?”  I didn’t go back for a second year.  For awhile my Russian handwriting was better than my English handwriting.  I still do recognize many Russian characters, but I have made no real effort to study Russian anymore other than look at the headlines on some online Russian newspapers.

Over the years I’ve put a little bit of effort into learning some bits and pieces of Finnish, Ukrainian, Greek, Dutch, Icelandic, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Japanese.  I’ll finish this with my Japanese joke: “Watashi-wa nihongo-ga wakarimasen.”  I say it well enough that Japanese relatives laugh at the contradiction: “I don’t understand Japanese.”

If you’re over 50 and enjoy languages as much as Mel does, join him for “Jolly Polyglots” in the winter quarter of University for Seniors at UMD.

This was also published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-08-28 at

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Berlin Wall - May 1968

This was originally published in the Northland Reader now the Reader Weekly, November 11, 1999.

Last Tuesday, November 9th, was the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Not being much of a TV viewer, I did not get the full thrill of seeing it come down.  But 21 years earlier I did get the full impact of seeing it up close.

In 1968 I transferred to Europe with Sperry Univac and was assigned to work in Basel, Switerland.  Within two weeks of my arrival I went to Berlin for a user conference.  I arrived early the day before the conference began and spent the day sightseeing.

I went through parks, into shops, and up into buildings to look out over a thriving city.  Unlike other cities, there was one place I was blocked from seeing the whole city: The Wall.  Unlike the green parks, the elegant shops, and the modern buildings that invited you in, the wall was grey, shabby, old-looking and uninviting.

The Wall was a combination of grey concrete and the façades of old buildings.  The concrete was topped with barbed wire.  Mounting one of the many observation platforms, one could see more fences and walls, with tank traps and other impediments between them.  There were light towers and watch towers in both directions.  It was a gross caricature of a high-security prison.  On some streets the wall joined the fronts of a series of apartment buildings.  But there were no apartments behind the fronts whose doors and windows had been filled with concrete.  Every so often there would be a cross with flowers and ribbons; the cross marked the spot where somebody had been killed crossing over the Wall.

My wanderings took me to a large park that had a sign pointing to the Brandenburg Gate.  Over a half mile from the gate was a little gate house.  An unarmed guard indicated that we should follow the walkway that went way around the barricades on the road leading to the Brandenburg Gate.

Halfway to the Gate and on the other side of the broad street there was the Monument to the Soviet Soldier.  Two Russian soldiers marched stiff-legged back and forth.  Two others did some repair on the paving.  The only thing separating us was a normal crowd-control barricade on my side of the street.

About three-quarters of the way to the Gate, I encountered the first armed West Germans that I had seen.  Two policemen with machine pistols were chatting in the street.  They didn't even look at me when I took their pictures.  Behind them and on the other side of the street was the Reichstag, an imposing building with almost no activity around it.  And right behind it was The Wall.

In the middle of the street, a few yards before The Wall, was a block house with the main floor about a half-story above the ground.  It had large windows in front, and a balcony.  On the balcony stood an American soldier looking over The Wall with a pair of binoculars.  The Wall made a great semicircle around the Brandenburg Gate.  In that semicircle stood a number of East German soldiers looking back over the wall, some with binoculars.

I was free to walk in front of the block house to either side of the semicircle.  Inside the semicircle it was barren except for grass between some of the cement blocks and the soldiers.  Outside the semicircle on the "west" side of The Wall there were numerous small trees and many propaganda signs directed to the east.  Among them were a quote from Bertold Brecht and a count of the number who died trying to cross The Wall.

Back at my hotel I met three people from one of our Swiss customers.  They said they were going to go to Checkpoint Charlie (one of the few openings in the wall); they invited me along.  We hopped in a taxi and went to what appeared to be a normal European mixed residential/business district.  That is, stores below and offices and apartments in the one to three stories above.

However, right in the middle of the street was a white frame bungalow.  It was the office of the American soldiers who monitored that section of The Wall.  And beyond it was The Wall.  Nobody paid any attention to us as we walked towards The Wall.  I don't remember how it looked as it crossed from one side of the street to the other.  I just focused on the little overlapping opening that we walked through.

On the other side we were met by an armed East German soldier who handed each of us a numbered ticket off a roll of tickets.  He directed us to a wooden building on the right side of the street.  Inside we had to write out a customs declaration, and give up our passports and the numbered ticket.  When we did this we were given another numbered ticket and directed to the next wooden building.

In the second building our passports were called out by number, in German, no name.  We turned in our second ticket and were given our passports back with a third numbered ticket.  Each ticket was a different color.  We were then directed to a third building.

As we walked between buildings we saw a car parked in front of the wooden building on the other side.  Several soldiers were around it and one soldier was on his knees looking under the car with a mirror on a stick and wheels.  We didn't watch long enough to know if the car was allowed to pass or not.

In the third building we turned in our ticket and ten West German Marks (about $2.50 at the time) in exchange for ten East German marks (almost worthless).  I put my East German ten-mark bill into my passport.  We were given a fourth ticket and allowed to go outside.  We were met by a soldier who took our tickets and allowed us to proceed down Friedrichstrasse.

What a difference met our eyes.  When we got out of the taxi, we were in a neighborhood that has been normal in European cities for a couple of centuries.  Not elegant but well-kept.  In front of us on the other side every other building was just as it had been at the end of World War II.  A few partial walls and a pile of rubble.

Every now and then there were some buildings undamaged or restored.  One of them was the Berlin Comic Opera which displayed playbills for coming performances.

We continued on to Unter Den Linden, before World War II one of the most fashionable streets in Berlin.  Now it had some rather plain looking shops with nothing much in their windows.  We continued on to the Brandenburg Gate but we were not allowed to get as close to The Wall as I had from the other side.  We were stopped by a line of crowd control barricades.  Nothing more was needed because there were plenty of soldiers around The Wall.

We returned to Friedrichstrasse down the other side of Unter Den Linden.  At the intersection we found a popular restaurant, at least among East German soldiers.  They seemed to be about one-third of the customers.  We found a table and ordered our food.  When it came it had a medium sized portion of meat with potatoes and vegetables filling almost all the space left on the plate.  I thought the restaurant was trying to show how good life was under Communism.  It was many months before I learned that serving style was typical of ordinary restaurants all over Germany.

We finally finished our meal and paid in West German marks, which pleased the management very much.  When we got outside it was late and dark, and so we took a taxi back to Checkpoint Charlie.

We were met again by a soldier who gave us each a numbered ticket.  We went into the wooden building on the right side of the street leading to The Wall.  We handed our tickets and passports to the sergeant behind the single, long counter.  He opened mine and saw ten East German marks.  One was not permitted to export East German marks.

A long conversation ensued between my Swiss companions and the sergeant.  With not 200 words of German vocabulary yet, I could only turn my head from speaker to speaker.  Finally, the sergeant looked me directly in the eye and asked, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"  I responded without hesitation, "Nein!"  This brought out laughter from everyone.

Just as two officers came in the door, the sergeant pointed to a Red Cross box at the far end of the counter.  The Swiss told me that I should deposit the ten East German marks in the box.  I later dubbed it the "Officers' Coffee Fund".

Now all our passports disappeared through a window to a back room.  After several minutes they were returned to us with yet another numbered ticket.  We left the building and went to another overlapping opening in The Wall.  We handed our tickets to the soldier at that opening, and walked through.  Nobody in the white frame building on the other side paid any attention to us.

It is amazing to think that we walked into freedom by entering a city that was completely surrounded by The Wall.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What did I learn outside school?

Last week I asked what did I learn in school, with an emphasis on how much I had forgotten of what I supposedly learned.  What I really learned in school was to learn.  I had teachers who excited me about a subject, and I had subjects that excited me even if the teacher didn’t.

I also had many other people outside school who enticed me to learn, something too many kids don’t have.  The high point of this seems to me to have been when we lived with my mother’s aunt and uncle, especially between the ages of 9 and 14.  My environment was rich with printed publications.

They subscribed to the morning Cleveland Plain Dealer and the afternoon Cleveland Press.  They subscribed to Saturday Evening Post or one or two of  its competitors.  They may have even subscribed to National Geographic.  I loved comic books and subscribed to Walt Disney Comics and bought Looney Tunes from time to time.  But we also had books.  I remember having a set of “East Wind Stories”, a set of stories about fictional animals.  I borrowed books from the school library and the downtown public library.

We also listened to the radio.  I remember that Aunt Gertrude had to have the station changed five minutes before Walter Winchell came on: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press.”  We also had 78 rpm records and listened sometimes to the station that played some classical music.  Was that WDOK?  I remember preferring piano music to violin music because the pitch was often lower.  And of course, lots of pop music.

We had no TV then.  I remember a when TV cameraman came to the sledding hill I often went to. He filmed me going down the hill with hands and feet in the air.  To see the newscast, we stood outside a TV store.  We also went to the TV studio where they graciously showed it to us.

I had many more outside school learning experiences before I graduated from high school, but in interest of space, I’ll skip forward to the summer before my senior year of college.  I wanted to learn about computers and found a summer job at Ohio Oil Company (Marathon).  Because I was put in a clerical job rather than a computer job, I borrowed Elliott Organick’s “Programming the IBM 650” from the company library.  With that knowledge, I wrote a program to calculate the square root of any number.  I gave it to my supervisor who passed it on to others. Within days I was transferred to a group more closely involved in computers.  Eventually I was given the task of writing a program to process quotas for gas stations and others.  I had lots of help from others on details of how the IBM 650 worked.  On my last day, I handed in the manual for how to use the program.  I think it was used by Ohio Oil for a year or two.

When I graduated from Ohio Wesleyan, Case took me back for a masters program in mathematics. Not only that, but I was given a graduate assistantship in the Computer Center that covered tuition and paid $75 a week too!

One of the jobs of Computer Center assistants was to provide help to sophomores who were taking the mandatory numerical analysis course.  We started in July, were given the ALGOL manual for Burroughs 220 and let loose.  In the fall, we were answering all kinds of questions for the undergraduates.

We also learned the assembler called SAVE written by a PhD candidate.  As a project for the only computer class I took, I wrote a simpler assembler called HELP, of which SAVE was the answer. Darned if there wasn’t somebody using HELP long after I left Case.

Case had ordered a Univac 1107 and I learned its assembler and instruction set from a manual. When I completed my master’s work I applied for work with Univac and was hired.  I was first set to some mathematical project that I had no idea of how to proceed.  Luckily for me that group was dissolved and I was moved into the FORTRAN compiler support group.  My boss never learned to write FORTRAN but he was a crackerjack at solving problems with the compiler.  I wound up solving problems with the FORTRAN library, pieces of code called on by users that did things not part of FORTRAN itself, like mathematical functions.  I never took a class in the compiler or the assembler it was written in.  We just jumped in and started solving problems.

Because I did have experience (or was it interest) in ALGOL, I was given the responsibility for fixing problems in the compiler, written by somebody else.  A Norwegian customer wrote an extension for simulation, called, surprise, SIMULA.  Without any training except the manual and trial and error, I fixed problems in SIMULA and its library.

I spent nearly twenty years at UNIVAC and kept learning things on the fly and even giving classes in what I learned!  I’ve lost track of the software I learned.

Then I went off on my own and learned more and more computers and software.  Even now with thirty years experience with the Macintosh, I learn something new with every release.  I’ve lost track of the number of software programs I’ve learned.

With these I’ve learned three things: software can be easy, software can be obtuse, and we ain’t seen nothing yet!

Also published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-08-14 at

Let’s you and him fight

The Middle East is in turmoil because there are fanatics who think their way is the only way and those who disagree should die.  Many seem to think the United States should take responsibility for this mess and clean it up.  But as we have seen from Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military cannot solve local and cultural political problems.

We are sending billions of dollars to Egypt, sell billions of armament to Saudi Arabia, and ostracize Iran.  All three plus Turkey have a greater interest in regional stability.  Why not encourage them to take leadership in attempting to solve the regional problems.

Consider also, that U.S. involvement in Middle East just encourages the recruitment of the susceptible for direct attacks on the United States.

Muslim opposition to ISIS is growing because ISIS is the anti-thesis of Islam.  See “Top Saudi Cleric: ISIS is Enemy No. 1 of Islam, ‘Destroying Human Civilization’”.

Now if the Muslim states in the area would take more action than words in curbing ISIS.

Defense and Education - More newspeak

Yet another loose note from the Bush days:

The Dept. of Defense is headed by Terence Bell.  Defense of a nation is the passing of traditions and knowledge from generation to generation.

The Dept. of Education is headed by Casper Weinberger.  The U.S. seems to be trying to educate lots of people that the U.S. government knows best by hitting them over the head with a big stick.

Addendum on 2014-08-21:

Have we learned anything since then?  We still have many who think the U.S. should be responsible for hitting others over the head with a big stick.

Bipartisanship - Newspeak

From a loose note on my desk from the Bush days:

Bipartisan - the President’s way

Now it seems to be the Republican Party’s way.

Or in Solomonic terms: Let’s cut the baby in half:(

What if the horseless carriage hadn’t been horseless?

From the loose notes on my desk, my cartoon about designers’ efforts to make systems backward compatible:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Quote of the day: Suburbia

“Seriously, nothing good ever came out of suburbia.”

I’m cleaning out my Outlook email, and the folder is my clippings file going back to 2011.  One that I had to write a blog entry on was “‘Detroit,’ Meet Detroit” by Toby Barlow, especially after I posted “You’re not from there; I am from there!”

Barlow gives a long list of interesting spots to visit in the City of Detroit.

I don’t know about Detroit, but I think one thing that deters people from going into a downtown is lack of “free parking”, even if they are only paying 25 cents for a twenty-minute stop.  The other is that public transit has become less frequent making it more inconvenient.  My mantra about bus service into downtown Duluth is that you’re either five minutes late or twenty-five minutes early.  Many buses arrive downtown at x:05 or x:35.  Maybe offices should make appointments for x:15 and x:45.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Divided we are conquered

We have not been conquered by an external force but by an internal force, namely “The Funders”.  Laws are made more for the benefit of the donors from large corporations than for the benefit of the people.

From one of my Outlook attic messages:

“Like a fever, revolutions come in waves. And if this is a revolution, then it broke first on November 4, 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, second, on February 19, 2009, with the explosion of anger by Rick Santelli, giving birth to the Tea Party, and third, on September 10, 2011 with the #Occupy movements that are now spreading across the United States.

“The souls in these movements must now decide whether this third peak will have any meaningful effect -- whether it will unite a radically divided America, and bring about real change, or whether it will be boxed up by a polarized media, labeled in predictable ways, and sent off to the dust bins of cultural history.”

This is the opening to “A Letter to the #Occup(iers): The Principal of Non-Contradiction”, Lawrence Lessig, Huffington Post, 2011-10-13.

Lessig calls on people to stop opposing each other and look for common ground, laws to benefit people rather than laws to benefit corporations.

Race - the unenlightened Enlightenment

I’m cleaning out my attic of old Outlook messages.  One is a link to “The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours”, Justin E. H. Smith, New York Times, 2013-02-10.

My note with it is “This is something for both racists and unfair-campaigners to think about.”

The basic thrust of this article is that it is environment that determines achievement and not an artificial construct such as “race”.

Interestingly, the Enlightenment was bracketed by the likes of Anton Wilhelm Amo and Alexandre Dumas, both famed writers with ancestors in Africa.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What did I learn in school?

I learned a lot but I’ve forgotten most of it.

I find I remember the classroom setting more than I do what was actually taught.  Maybe this is why so many of us think we were never taught about certain things.  I can still picture my first elementary school, buying Victory stamps, and the VE banner that was displayed.  I remember reading Dick and Jane and writing the numbers out to 200!

I remember many things about my second elementary school, but the classroom scenario that sticks out the most is the vote on the distance to the moon.  What, a vote on a scientific fact?  I remember a fourth-grade substitute science teacher doing this.  For years, I thought she didn’t know and was asking the class.  But she may have only been sampling the class.  I remember that incident more than I do how far is it to the moon.  Without looking it up, I’d say 250,000 miles. With all the moon shots in the news, you would think that number would stick better in my head. Is this one of those facts that get forgotten because we can always look it up if we really need to know?

I do remember learning typing and driving, probably the two most important life-long skills most of us need and use.  I do remember taking French in 8th grade, but I didn’t continue because I would rather learn printing.  How many people set type by hand now?  I took Latin in high school because I was advised that it was the basis for many other languages.  All I remember of that two and half-years was that I was elected president of the Latin club, and we read an abridged “Aeneid” and “Horatio at the Bridge”.  I remember a music teacher telling us that anyone with intelligence can learn to sing.  I didn’t get around to learning until I was in my 60s, and now I don’t practice enough to keep my voice in shape.

I don’t remember learning much about World War II in school.  That may because we might have been using textbooks that hadn’t been updated.  Also the teacher was not very inspiring.  The only history I remember from that whole year is a picture of the Haymarket Square riot in a text book. The picture was on the right-hand page of the small but thick orange textbook.  The picture was an engraving from some archive; I don’t remember if it was a photograph or a drawing.  And I don’t remember much about the Haymarket Square riot other than there was lot of police violence.  It was probably labor related and took place in Chicago.

Was I taught about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my American History class?  I don’t remember.  I had that class in 1954.  It could be that the textbook hadn’t been updated.  These events have been reported over and over for almost 70 years, and so it is hard to remember where I learned what.

Another digression: “, and so…”  Mr. Conrad, my 11th grade English teacher, frequently told us how to use "and so", but I don’t remember exactly what he prescribed.  This particular piece of grammar was almost the only thing I remember from the class.

I had Mister Rush for trigonometry and another class.  I don’t remember much of the material but I remember his punctuating his remarks with “When you go to Case…”  meaning Case Institute of Technology, now part of Case Western Reserve University.  Darned if five of us didn’t go to Case. Only two of us graduated, yours truly not being one.  But I got to come back for graduate school.

Now, Miss Palmer, I remember her well.  She was a fearsome taskmaster, but she taught Shakespeare well.  I enjoyed reading an act each day for homework for both “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”, and then we would reread each act a few scenes at a time.  She gave me a lifelong love of Shakespeare, but I have yet to read all of his plays.

Interestingly, I don’t remember taking much homework home.  I had two study halls most days and got most of it done in one of them.  The rest of my study hall time I read science fiction from the school library.

College and graduate school are also a blur.  I remember translating “Clementine” into French,  I remember reading Candide (English, condensed) and “Brothers Karamazov”.  On the latter, what did I care what the meaning of the mortar and pestle was?

How much do you remember of school?  For most of us, that is only what we use on a regular basis.  I have a Master’s in mathematics and I don’t remember anything from “Functions of Complex Variables” in graduate school.  I do remember the book was blue, I think the author was from India, and it is still on the right hand side of my book case, first shelf above the bottom shelf.

What we really learned in school was to learn.

Back to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I remember reading about the horrible deaths both immediate and years later.  I remember that prisoners of war were killed in the blast.  I remember the justification that lives were “saved”.  I have long questioned how many kids’ lives is one soldier’s life worth.

Where I think I learned this is from reading newspapers regularly.  If your only news source is radio or TV you’ll never have time for all there is to know.  With newspapers, you have a larger selection of stories, you read them at your convenience, and with the Internet, you have a huge selection to choose from.

One of Mel's high school classmates said, "Learn something each day."  Mel often wishes he wouldn't forget it the next day.

Also published in Reader Weekly, 2014-08-14 at

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Quote of the day: Humanities are still relevant

“So, yes, the humanities are still relevant in the 21st century — every bit as relevant as an iPhone.”

Nicholas Kristoff, “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities”, New York Times, 2014-08-13

He discusses that thoughts of Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Peter Singer and their relevance to ideas today.  He points out that “the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.”

The value of an iPhone is not the same as the values that guide our lives.  For the first, we need the technologists.  For the second, we need the philosophers.

Oligarchy by apathy

Many are worried about corporations running our government, giving us an oligarchy, government by the few.  But we already have an oligarchy because too many eligible voters don’t bother voting.

In the Minnesota primary on August 12, the turnout was about 12 percent.  That means 88 percent didn’t give a damn about who was elected.  In other words, that 88 percent is giving government power to the 12 percent who showed up.  That is no democracy, rule by the people, but an oligarchy, rule by the few.

If you were one of the few anywhere, remind everyone you know to vote in the next and every election, no matter where in the world you live.

Always vote because every vote always counts. If you stay away you give the election away.

See also “Politics: Don Givadam wins again”.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

You’re not from there; I am from there!

The following was inspired by “Why You Lie About Where You Are From” by Jake Flanagin, New York Times, 2014-08-08.

My wife often says that she is from Cleveland and that we lived in Philadelphia.  I reply that she is not from Cleveland and that we lived well outside Philadelphia.

Until I went to college I lived mostly within the borders of the City of Cleveland with a couple of years in a rural area and a few years in one of the largest suburbs, East Cleveland.  On the other hand, when my wife lived in the Cleveland area she lived in farther out suburb and a small city, Berea.  It wasn’t until we were married that she actually lived in the City of Cleveland.  Maybe that makes her eligible to be “from” Cleveland.

When we came back to the U. S. from living in Europe, we lived in a township outside the city of Norristown, an exurb of Philadephia.  In Whitpain Township, nothing was within walking distance; we had to drive everywhere and there was no public transportation.

Now we can truly say we live in the City of Duluth.  Lots is within walking distance, but not so much anymore.  Even five years ago I thought nothing of walking home from downtown (mostly uphill).  Now I wonder how many years before I’m unwilling to take the slight uphill walk to UMD.

Friday, August 08, 2014

“The Prisoner” – different versions

When we lived in Sweden we saw a few episodes of “The Prisoner”.  This was probably '71 or '72; we think our TV was taken in a burglary before Christmas 1972.  One episode that stood out was when No. 6 listened to identical LPs and declared that one was too fast and another was too slow.  I have been trying to remember what the piece was for years.  I do know that I bought a copy of it later based on hearing it in “The Prisoner”.

I have been working through the DVDs from Netflix and finally watched the LP episode.  It is the second episode on Vol. 7, “Hammer into Anvil”.  But No. 6 doesn’t make comments on the speed in the shop, he just looks at his watch.

Another difference I remember is that in the opening of the BW version we saw, the guy in the top hat sticks a cane or an umbrella to knock out the soon-to-be No. 6.  In the Netflix version, we only see the cloud of gas coming in the keyhole.  The BW version had No. 6 caught in the big bubble; in the Netflix version we only see it coming out of the water and bouncing along the beach.

The LP?  “L’Arlésienne” by Hector Berlioz.

From I learned why “L’Arlésienne” was chosen.  If you haven’t seen “Hammer into Anvil” yet, see it before you check this link.

Is business experience a qualification for government office?

Some Republican candidates are running for statewide office in Minnesota.  See and  They claim that their business experience makes them better qualified for government service.

Adam Smith seems to have thought differently.  He said that those who live by profit are not to be trusted because they have often “deceived and oppressed” the public.

See “The Invisible Adam Smith” for more about this.

Thursday, August 07, 2014


Why?  Of the reporter’s “who, what, when, where, and why”, why seems too often used and too often not used enough.

“Why can’t I stay up?”  “Why do I hafta eat…” are among the persistent questions of children.

“Why don’t they …” is one of the persistent questions of adults who absolve themselves of any responsibility for actions of governments and corporations.

And sometimes we can’t really do much about many activities except ask, “Why?”  Here are a few of my annoying why’s.

Why do so many people complain about city workers standing around doing nothing but so few people complain about private contractors standing around doing nothing?  I often see more of the latter than the former.  In both cases they are generally doing one of three things.  One, they have to wait for more trucks to arrive to deliver or take away things.  Two, they have to discuss the next steps.  Three, like all of us, they need a break.

Why do people in dark cars speed through parking garages without lights and ignore people who are backing out of spaces?  Why do they think the backing drivers can see through the other parked cars?  When I was a bus driver, one of the “yard rules” was that backing buses had right-of-way.  There is no way that a driver backing a 30 or 40 foot vehicle could see through all the intervening buses.  Think of the driver of a compact car trying to see through a pickup truck while backing out.

Why do people insist on talking on cell phones while driving?  A few days ago I was walking across a parking lot and a driver was so busy on his cell phone that he didn’t even notice me.  Had I said “Boo!” he might have swerved into a parked car.

Why do drivers turning left stay behind the crosswalk, but drivers turning right go over the crosswalk?  The first may keep others from turning left on that light cycle.  The second never look to their right for pedestrians.

Why do people have to have car stereos so loud that they can be heard a block or more away?  I have been stopped alongside driver’s whose radios drowned out the sound from mine.

Why do sound systems have to be so loud that the words are distorted?  I didn’t enjoy the excellent singing of “Les Misérables” because the distortions of the over-amped sound system garbled words.

Why do sound systems have to be so loud that they can be heard a mile or more away?  Anybody with a car stereo that loud might get a ticket.

We can hear the Chester Bowl concerts over a half-mile away.  Years ago we enjoyed concerts by Willowgreen and by the Downbeats within a few dozen feet of the stage.  Then somebody decided to crank things up.  The last time I tried to go to a Chester Bowl concert, I wouldn’t even enter the park.  The sound was so loud that my ears hurt at the entrance on the Skyline Parkway.

The Bayfront concerts are even worse.  I could understand some of the words of a recent performer while standing in front of Darland Hall at UMD!  What’s that, about two miles away?  I gave up going to Bayfront concerts years ago.  I think the last time I went was when a friend was playing, and even his music was too loud.

Why do so few people show up to vote?  Don’t they realize that by not voting they get us farther from a democracy and closer to an oligarchy?  That is, “rule” of the people gives way to rule of the few.  Even if your favorite candidates are not favored by the polls, if you show up at the polls, the “winners” will have a smaller margin of “victory”.  There wouldn’t be so much talk of “landslides” if candidates won by 100,000 votes to 95,000 votes instead of 100,000 votes to 50,000 votes.  Also remember polls can be very, very wrong.  Jesse Ventura was predicted to come in third for governor, but enough people didn’t pay attention to the polls that he came in first.

Why do so many people complain about large corporations and then clammer to buy their products?  I know, I know, we need large corporations for our cars, computers, and cell phones, but we can at least get our coffee at locally-owned coffee shops.  I am amazed at the number of liberals who get their books at Amazon when they can get those same books at a locally-owned bookstore.

Why do so many people complain about government inefficiency and mistakes but ignore corporate inefficiency and mistakes?  If corporations are so good why are there so many complaints on customer support blogs?  Why are there warranties other than a revenue source?  Why are there so many typos in books and newspapers?

Finally, why do so many writers keep writing columns to change the world?  Far better writers than they have tried changing the world, but very few of them succeed.  Even then, things still go badly again.  Why?

Mel asks why is he getting older but not wiser.

Also published in Reader Weekly, 2014-08-07 at