Friday, September 26, 2014

A less obvious shrinkflation

Do you see many refills for liquids in pump dispensers?

Once upon a time, I bought liquid soap based on the availability of larger refill bottles.  When I checked a local supermarket earlier this week, there were no refills to be found, neither for soap nor sanitizer.

The groceries and the larger manufacturers make more money per unit selling only the pump containers.

Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth bucks this trend.  Not only does it have refill bottles but it also has bulk containers so you can refill your own container.

Many people don’t shop at co-ops because many items often cost more.  They don’t realize all the savings in plain sight that are available at co-ops.

See also “Smaller package?  Blame Shrinkflation”.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

You can’t get local news from an ATM

Rather than use the ATM for cash today I went into the bank to cash a check and to say hello to the manager and any familiar tellers.  I asked about the sudden closing of one of the nearby shops.  I got more news than I expected.  I knew the owners and some of the staff of the shop and hadn’t heard as many details.  It was stuff I wouldn’t have seen in the newspaper and I am not going to repeat here.  I did get some information that I could use in planning my future business.

I doubt if I’ll ever need a loan again.  If I do it will be easier and possibly with good terms than if I had just been a number in the system.  Besides the ATM doesn’t give Tootsie Rolls.

Ten years of posting

Yesterday I got a “gold star” from Google AdSense for having a web site for ten years.  I have been posting to this blog for eight years.  I haven’t got rich from either and I don’t have a large or medium following.  I can’t even get my family to visit my blog regularly:(  But it has been fun posting my thoughts and observations; and once in a while somebody tells me they liked a posting.

For various reasons, I am winding down my website,  My goodness!  It has been over five years since I updated the home page.  One reason is that I am limited to 200 pages; another is that the tools for posting on Google Blogger are a lot simpler to use.

For the Irregular Blog, you might find some of the statistics interesting:

Total posts - 2158 with this post

Top ten posts by pageviews

235  2012-04-17 Добро пожаловать в мой русский посетителей
197  2012-12-20 Mike Peters' "Twelve Days of Christmas" puns for 2...
90    2012-08-28 Can't corporations live within their means?
84    2012-04-19 The kleptocracy of corporate boards
76    2011-12-22 For word nerds only
73    2013-01-17 A clever but off-the-mark sign
70    2012-05-24 Why facebook's stock price went down after the IPO...
60    2012-11-25 Free market and the Internet
56    2012-02-10 Extremism continues on the Unfair campaign
53    2013-04-10 Why snail research is important

What does the most viewed post mean and how come it is the most viewed?  It is Russian for “Welcome to my Russian visitors” and it because I have a suspiciously large number of page views from Russia.  I suspect that these are reverse spammers who hope that I will track them down and make a click on their sites.  They are wasting their time and mine.

Page views since beginning

34260 Russia
32684 United States
2196   Germany
1752   France
1194   Ukraine
1072   United Kingdom
1013   China
674     Netherlands
417     Latvia
350     Turkey

and many other countries large and small.

Search keywords

69   first minority president
56   mother goose and grimm 12 days of Christmas
55   hyperbolic humor
15   facebog
14   bluestone commons duluth mn
12   corporate entitlements
12   glen post net worth
12   unfair campaign
9     bluestone commons duluth

If you got to the end of this post, thank you!  If you like what you read on this blog, please tell your friends.  Otherwise, thanks for visiting.

Walk on the random side

“Life is a journey, not a destination” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

This concept can be put into a single word: serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole in 1754.  It means finding good things where you weren’t looking for them.  It comes from “The Princes of Serendip”, an Arabian tale.  Serendip was also featured in Prokofiev’s “Love of Three Oranges”.

Ah, this whole column is going to be very serendipitous.  I thought of this column as about the twist and turns of my own life.  But like my life, this column is going to turn up ideas I wasn’t looking for,

The March from the “Love of Three Oranges” by a Soviet composer was, irony of ironies, used as the theme song for the radio program “FBI: In Peace and War”.  One of the FBI’s tasks at the time was finding Communists.  On the other hand, many of Prokofiev’s works were anti-establishment.  Think of “Lieutenant Kije”!

After my parents divorced when I was about five or so, my mother moved in with her aunt and uncle.  Once I started school, I was often free to roam.  I knew all the vacant lots and stores, where the library was, and where a super-duper playground was.

When I was nine, my aunt and uncle bought a house on the other side of town.  I don’t know which came first, a new job or a new house.  Whichever, my mother’s uncle still worked within walking distance.

Again I explored an ever wider area, learning where the movie theater was, a great sledding hill, and the community center and the Y.  I had a take a streetcar to the downtown library.  I made a new set of friends, and eventually joined some of them in a Boy Scout troop.

After my first year of junior high, my mother decided to get her own apartment back on the other side of town.  Again, I had freedom to roam.  No sledding hill, but a vacant lot for baseball and an actual ball diamond a bike ride away.  I also frequented a drug store for malts, ice cream sodas, and sundaes.  That lead me to drop my paper route and work 5-10 after school three times a week.

After I started high school my mother remarried and we moved back across town.  I was supposed to go to a high school with about 3,000 students, but I got district permission to go to the high school where my Scout friends went.  And this road made all the difference.  Would I have gone to Case if I had a different math teacher who didn’t punctuate his remarks with “When you go to Case…”

When still in high school I also decided on my own to go to a Methodist Church within walking distance. I wound up being active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) even into my college years.  This lead to some pressure to go into the ministry.  This and the long daily commute to Case created several conflicts.

While in college I decided to run for the President of the MYF subdistrict.  Also sitting on the subdistrict were a couple of attractive high school girls, both of whom I dated.  But I preferred the second one.  Fifty-six years later, neither of us regrets the choice.  And my wife still doesn’t regret voting against me because she thought MYF was not for college students.

During my tenure on the council I didn’t do so well in my junior at Case.  I was asked not to come back for the spring term.

I don’t remember what led to my choice of Ohio Wesleyan University other than it was Methodist.  Possibly it was my new girlfriend was starting there in the fall.

When I visited OWU before applying, the registrar recommended that I major in mathematics, which I did.  Surprisingly, after my dismal last two semesters at Case, I got all As in math except for a single B.

Prior to graduation I applied to Case for a graduate assistantship in the computer center.  I also applied for an assistantship at the University of Michigan in communications, which included computer science.  I heard from Case right away and was even offered a summer job in the computer center.  I didn’t hear from U of Mich until late July or even early August

When I graduated from OWU we got married and rented the upstairs of a duplex in Cleveland.  This also meant that my wife would have to go to college in the Cleveland area.  She chose Baldwin-Wallace way the other side of the metro area..  Fortunately, she could commute with an instructor who was friend of her mother.  By the way, this friend was also the one who recommended the duplex.

We both liked canoeing and made a few day trips to Portage Lakes.  But our dream was to go to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota.  We did so in August 1961.  The trip was a mix of adventure and misadventure.  We didn’t know it at the time, but it changed our lives forever by offering a wide range of unexpected choices.  Many of them were “the least traveled” and “made all the difference.”

That covered about 25 years of my life. I have notes for the next 50 but have run out of space and have other articles lined up for the next few weeks.  If you really, really want more, tell me so when you see me.

Mel thinks he has each day well-planned but something else always arises.

This was also printed in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2014-09-25 at

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can Tai tie his shoes?

My wife just left to pick up our grandson Tai from day care.  I was wondering about greeting him on his return with “Can Tai tie his shoes?”

Then my mind went into a whirlwind of word combinations.

Tai can tie his shoes, but Tai first has to shoo us away.

Tai can shoe a horse but not if he shoos it.

Tai can’t shoe a fly, but he can shoo a fly.  If he can’t shoe a fly, then he can’t tie a shooed fly’s shoe.

Drat, I thought I had more silly combinations, but it was a tie remembering them before other parts of my brain shooed them away.

Technology: A Big Bother We Can’t Do Without

Technology: A Big Bother We Can’t Do Without
Melvyn D. Magree
Originally published in the
Northland Reader
now the
Reader Weekly
March 2, 2000
Life is so much easier with technology,
but it's care and feeding can be time consuming at the wrong time.

Harvey Mackay, author of Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive, recently wrote a paean to technology (Star Tribune, 3 Feb 2000).  In the main I agree with him that technology has given us lots of freedom: freedom to travel, freedom to communicate, freedom to enjoy art, and on and on.

Many of us have traveled far and wide thanks to technology.  Even in our local travels technology has given us more and more freedom.  I remember when tires lasted 10,000 miles and oil was changed every 1,000 miles.  Now many tires are guaranteed for 50,000 miles and oil can be changed every 6,000 miles.  And I’m glad “they don’t build them like they used to.”  My current vehicle has nearly 60,000 miles and has never broken down (not including a flat tire); it’s the first of over a dozen vehicles to give such reliable service.

Many of us no longer write letters and articles with pen.  I have moved from pen to mechanical typewriters whose keys stuck to electric typewriters and carbon paper for copies to computers from which I can send as many copies as I want anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately, computer technology has not become as reliable as the modern automobile.  In fact, the reliability of computer technology seems to be inversely proportional to the complexity of the technology.

In a speech given in 1998 Gary Bachula, then Acting Undersecretary for Technology in the Department of Commerces, tells a good anecdote about the computer/auto comparison.  Bill Gates said that if autos were like computers they would weigh 30 pounds, get a 1,000 miles per gallon of gas, and cost less than $500.  Bachula responds that if autos were like computers they would crash twice a day, stop and fail to restart, and have to have the engine reinstalled periodically.

Bachula's speech contains several other items where computer technology fails to meet our needs.

Ten years ago, some software crashed but online connections seemed rather stable.  We could send email without problem though only to people on the same network.  We could download kilobytes of software but it seemed to take forever, or at least all evening.

Now email packages contain a great array of editing and formatting features, a number of user defined mailboxes to organize messages, and more features than most people can use.  We can send email to almost anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.  But the email software might crash when organizing the mailboxes and lose all the mail we just sent.

Now we can download megabytes of software and it still seems like forever, but it takes only an hour or so.  But, the browser may crash or decide that it has received everything even though it has a few megabytes to go.

Now we can print pages that look like they came out of a book and with multiple colors.  But then when we have a deadline, the system may say that it can’t find the printer or the cartridge starts smearing or the system crashes every time we try to print more than a few pages.

To make matters worse, we have to maintain our computers a lot more.  In the simpler days we only had to dust the computer once in a while, change the printer ribbon occasionally, and clean the disk reader head periodically.

Now there seems to be lots of care and feeding of the operating system and many programs.  We have to make sure all the programs are compatible with our settings of the system.  We may have to track down some weird setting that is not even mentioned in the manuals to make something work.  Every so often we have to do a “clean install” of the system or a program to get rid of an accretion of stuff whose purpose we know not.  We have to defragment our hard drives periodically to make our software run more efficiently.

It is ironic that as the computers become easier to use, they require more work to use.

This is but a part of a trend of a larger issue: pushing costs off to the end user.  Costs may be monetary or may be of time.  ATMs can be a great convenience but banks push the costs to the user with transaction fees.  Public Radio’s 75Music closed its 800 number and opened a web site.  It saved on personnel costs but it takes more customer time to gain information online than it did to talk to a live person.

This trend was brought up over 25 years ago in a computer publication that few even in computer professions read, which is too bad.  The article was “Guidelines for Humanizing Computerized Information Systems: A Report from Stanley House” by Theodor D. Sterling; it was published in Communications of the ACM, November 1974.  The portion that has stuck in my mind is “One of the most common methods of increasing the efficiency of a system is to employ the recipients of the service as unpaid components whose time, effort, and use of intelligence do not appear in the cost accounting.”

I missed my calling.  Instead of being a pseudo-retired programmer, I should have been a successful envelope salesman like Harvey Mackay.  Then instead of spending so much of my time in the care and feeding of my computer, I could have passed the problems on to my IT department and forgotten about it.

Addendum: 2014-09-18

Our use of technology has changed greatly in the ten years since I wrote the above.  And the change will probably be even greater in the next ten years.  In the ten years since the above, the number of problems has probably increased even more than the benefits.  I sometimes I think I spend more time searching for solutions to things that don’t work right than I do actually doing something with the technology.

For example, I have a more powerful computer with software that can do much more than ten years ago.  But it seems like it takes ten times as long for a program to load now than then.  Supposedly, I can take some steps to improve this.  However, I think it will take me two or more weeks of full time effort to back everything up, weed out unnecessary files, and do a “clean install”.  When do the two minute waits for a program to load accumulate to be more than the two weeks of new installation?  I think I might just hold out until the next time I upgrade, possibly two to four years from now.

©2000, 2004, 2007, 2014 Melvyn D. Magree

keywords: Harvey Mackay, technology, computers, software, problems, cost benefit, end user, crash, slow response, clean install, Theodore D. Stirling, Gary Bachula, ACM, Association for Computing Machinery

Foreign policy foreign to Founders

What would George Washington think of the foreign relations of our Presidents for the last 100 years?  Or even two hundred years?

Consider what George Washington wrote in his “Farewell Address”:

“Hence likewise they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

Poor George probably spun in his grave when Madeleine Albright said, “What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?”

“…the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party … opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”

How often does the influence of Israel hamper U.S. policy in the Middle East?  Sometimes the Democrats and Republicans both work overtime to show how great their support of Israel is.

“Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favorite, are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.”

Japan and Vietnam have forgiven the U.S. for the damage done to them.  I wonder when the U.S. will get around to forgiving Cuba and Iran for the minor damage done to it.

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”

I wonder if George Washington would appreciate being called “the leader of the free world”?

“Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?”

George Washington really would really disapprove of the hundreds of U.S. bases around the world.

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world—so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it, for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements (I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy)—I repeat it therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But in my opinion it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them. Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

Would George Washington approve of the U.S. staying in NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

“But if I may even flatter myself that [these counsels] may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good, that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism—this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare by which they have been dictated.”

Unfortunately, faction arose strongly shortly after Washington left office – Jefferson and Adams became strong political opponents.  Fortunately, they did become friends later in life.

Both Jefferson and Madison waged war on the Barbary Pirates who demanded tribute to not attack U.S. ships in the Mediterranean and ransom for captured sailors.  These were wars with limited objectives that ended with treaties favorable to the United States.

On the other hand Madison’s war with Great Britain was called just that by those opposed to it – “Mr. Madison’s War”.  The opposition was particularly strong in New England where many merchants continued to trade with Britain.

One of the first major expansions of U.S. influence was the Monroe Doctrine to curb any influence by European powers over the newly independent countries of Latin America.

“The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”

How often did the U.S. interfere with “the free and independent condition” of these countries?  George Washington’s “foreign intrigue” certainly was practiced in Latin America by many of his successors.

The very faction that Washington warned against, one section of the country against another, led to the Civil War.

And on and on it went, war after war.  Some required U.S. involvement; many didn’t.  Some of the latter were called “wars of choice” by critics.

Those who signed the Constitution and promoted it knew that circumstances and the Constitution would change, but would they approve of all the changes?

Three persons needed for a good marriage

Doesn’t a marriage only need two persons?  Do I mean that the support of an in-law is required?

No, what I mean is that three personalities are required for a good marriage: you, me, and us.

Consider a couple living in a small apartment.  One likes to read, one likes to watch TV, and both like symphony concerts.  So sometimes the TV watcher should turn off the TV.  Sometimes the reader should ignore the TV.  And sometimes they both go to the concert together.

In other words, a good marriage needs recognition of separate interests and needs fulfillment of shared interests.

Beep follow up

The beep that cried wolf” was gone the next morning.  Either the driver was able to start the car without a problem or somebody gave him or her a jump start.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Only in dreams does beer not spill

In a dream I knocked over a full glass or bottle of beer. Not a drop came out.

The above is from a note in May 2014.

How do we dream something physically impossible but in the dream believe its reality.

For years I haven’t had any flying dreams or dreams of levitating over a floor and skating forward.  Could this mean I’ve settled down and no longer think I can do everything?

Sometime in the last two months I’ve had a recurrence of dreaming of a glowing fire in something that should not be burning.  In the dream nothing is consumed.

I heard on a recent “To the Best of Our Knowledge” that thoughts can be captured from one animal and replayed in the brain of another animal, inducing false memory.  Will sometime we be able to capture our dreams and replay them when we are conscience.

What are the legal implications of this?  Could the authorities read our minds?  Could the authorities put a false memory in our heads and get us to confess to something we never did?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The beep that cried wolf

Just as we finished dinner, a car out front started beeping.  We waited for the driver to come and turn it off.  Then the beeping stopped.  But, in what seemed like two minutes, it started beeping again.  I assumed the car belonged to a staff member or a customer of the restaurant at the other end of the block or a student who parked and walked up to UMD.

I went out, wrote down the license number, make, and model, and went to the restaurant. The cashier wasn’t particularly interested because she had her hands full with several orders.

When I came back, the lights were blinking but the honking had stopped.

I hope the lights don’t wear the battery down.

My big question is what good are car alarms.  Unless there is a lot of foot traffic around, nobody will bother to look if a thief has broken in.  We hear so many false car alarms that most of us assume nothing but a malfunction is happening.

School choice and the free market

School choice and the free market
Melvyn D. Magree
Originally published in
the Northland Reader
now the
Reader Weekly
"School choice...whatta concept"
February 17, 2000
 Posted in blog 2014-09-16

In the debate about “school choice” the phrases “let the free market decide” and “competition will bring out the best” are often used.  What are “the free market” and “competition”?  Is “school choice” an issue that can best be determined by “the free market” or “competition”?

The definition of an ideal free market includes

• Large number of buyers and sellers
• Free entry and exit of the market
• Knowledge of all relevant prices
• All goods are “private goods”; all the benefits and all the costs are reflected in the price

“School choice” certainly involves a large number of buyers.  Students in a given urban community number in the thousands.  In an ideal market a large number of buyers would lead to a large number of sellers.

Children are required to enter the market for schools, and they aren’t free to exit it.  Even if they were to change to another school, it would be difficult to do so for many reasons until the end of a school year.  Schools take a bit of time to enter or exit the market, but many businesses do so also.

Parents and children may be able to get lists of prices of all the schools, but it is very difficult for parents and children to know all features of all schools.  The price is not only money but quality and quantity of services.

The costs of schools may be reflected in the price of tuition, but the benefits go far beyond those paying the price.  Not only do the children and the parents benefit from school, but the society at large benefits.  Companies have workers that communicate and reason well.  The community and the nation have people who can produce products, services, and ideas.  Neighbors have interesting friends.  The city, the county, and the state have informed voters.  In other words, education is not a “private good” but a “public good”.

Economists define a “public good” as being non-rival, prohibitively expensive, or having benefits that are not limited to the buyer.

A non-rival good is one that can be used by many people at the same time.  It is also available not just to the highest bidder, but to all regardless of ability to pay.

A prohibitively expensive good costs more than one person or group wants to pay.  Few people can afford all the costs of education.  Even private schools do not charge the full costs; they have endowments, scholarship funds, and general contributions.

As discussed earlier, many people benefit from an educated society, not just parents and students “buying” an education.

If something is a public good benefitting a large portion of the community, then it generally seems fair that the public pays through taxation.  If the public pays for something then the public would like to have some say in what the public good is like and how much it costs.  The most satisfactory means of expressing the public will for over 200 years has been democratic representation.  The public elects representatives charged with certain responsibilities.  The representatives determine the nature of the public good, what is an acceptable cost for the public good, and how to raise the funds to pay for it.

The representatives could decide to provide the public good through a government agency or subsidize it through a contractor.  If a government agency provides the public good, then the representatives generally do not provide subsidies for alternative provisions.  For example, if the government has a police or fire department it does not provide a subsidy for those who would have their own police or firefighters.  Should education be any different?

If schools are to be subsidized, should there be only one contractor or many?  The other argument for “school choice”, “competition,” implies that there should be many contractors for schools.  What does competition lead to?

“Competition” implies schools have competition for buyers; that is, buyers select a school.  But the reality is that students compete for private schools; the schools select the buyers.  All of the buyers cannot select the school that meets their needs.

If a product is more popular than competing products, the manufacturer can do two things: supply more product or raise prices.  If the manufacturer decides to supply more product it may be able to do so quickly.  If it decides to raise prices, some buyers may decide to go elsewhere but the manufacturer will probably retain enough buyers to have a satisfactory profit for some time or to have more money to put into improving the product.

But if a school is more popular than its capacity, it cannot meet that demand for a year or more.  Should it then raise its prices to have a higher profit or to fund additional improvements in the school?

Now if the public is going to pay for such a school through vouchers, does it pay the full cost asked by the school?  Or does it pay only a certain minimum that is guaranteed to all students.

In the first case we get into another economic idea, efficiency.  One kind of economic efficiency is low cost production.  That is, a free market will reward the lowest cost producers and punish the highest cost producers.  But if a voucher pays the price asked for by a high cost producer, do we have a free market?

On the other hand, if a voucher pays only a guaranteed minimum, then it reduces the number of buyers.  Only the children of those families who can afford to pay the difference can go to the very selective schools.  “School choice” becomes limited for the rest of the children.

©2000, 2004, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree

keywords: Melvyn Magree, Melvyn D. Magree, Party of One, Reader Weekly, school choice, free market, public goods, public schools, fire department, police department, vouchers, competition

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Riding a rocket to a standstill

Our son and his four-year old son were coming from Japan to the Twin Cities in the last week of August.  My wife planned to stay in the Twin Cities until Labor Day and then bring our grandson back to Duluth with her.  I didn’t want to stay in the Twin Cities that long and wanted to spend most of the weekend at our cabin.

There was no point in driving two cars down so that we could come back separately.  Ah ha! This is my chance to try Jefferson Lines’ Rocket Rider.  I went to Jefferson Lines’ web site and determined that my best choice was to get the bus at 5:55 P.M. at the University of Minnesota stop.  That seemed the easiest to find.  The bus would arrive at UMD at 8:55 P.M., just in time for me to catch the 9:00 DTA bus down the hill.

I ordered my ticket online, printed it out and tucked it in my backpack.

After I had my ticket and before we left for the Twin Cities, the rains came.  And the rains came.  Our sump pump turned our lawn into a swamp.  There was so much water that it washed the mulch and gravel down from the side of our newly-built steps to the front walk.  It even undercut the steps.  There goes going to our cabin on Saturday.

I fretted about it for the rest of the week, even more so when I was in the Twin Cites and more rain was coming in Duluth.

Well, it wasn’t raining when my wife dropped me off at the U of M stop in Minneapolis.  The bus arrived on schedule.  I gave my ticket and travel bag to the driver and got on a nearly empty bus.  Plenty of window seats left.

The next stop was the Union Depot in St. Paul.  I was glad that I didn’t chose that as my stop.  Even though I have some familiarity with Downtown St. Paul, I couldn’t keep track of the streets that the bus driver used.  Besides, there must have been twenty people waiting for the bus.

Two young men got on that were speaking some foreign language that sounded Slavic to me.  I asked the man that sat next to me “What Slavic language are you speaking?”  He looked at me in consternation and said that was German, they were from Basel, Switzerland!  Finally, I understood why my German colleagues in Basel were upset with their Swiss colleagues for holding meetings in Schweitzerdeutsch.  Anyhow, the two young men were impressed that I had spent several weeks in Basel.  We had sporadic conversations after that; my seat mate was engrossed in a book, as was I.

The driver announced that we would be at UMD by 8:30.  But he didn’t consider the heavy traffic going north for the long weekend.  It didn’t really clear up until Forest Lake.  Although the bus driver allowed lots of room behind the cars he followed, my guess is that he was going 75-80 miles per hour.  It seemed that he spent more time in the left lane than the right.

As darkness fell, I had a harder time knowing where we were.  I would see the signs as the bus approached them, but I never saw them as we passed them.  Of course!  There often were not any cars close enough behind to shine lights on the signs.

We arrived at the West Duluth bus station sometime before nine.  Most of the passengers got off there.  The Swiss asked if I was familiar with an address in the 300 block of E. Superior St.  One was getting the address out of a guide book, but I didn’t think to ask to see the entry.  I suggested they take any of the buses on Grand Avenue and offered to look up the schedule on my iPhone.  They said they would take a taxi.

The bus arrived at Kirby Plaza after nine.  I didn’t want to walk home with a heavy backpack and a travel bag, and so I had to wait until ten.  Oh, to be back in Basel where one tram line ran every ten minutes even at midnight!

I’ll spare you the details of how I fixed the erosion by our front steps, but I think the new sod will hold and be green.  But the task left me too tired on Sunday to go to our cabin, and I was still to tired on Monday.  So, my rocket ride left me at a standstill.

What did I think overall about the Rocket Rider?  It beat driving alone for two-and-a-half hours.  The seat was comfortable and I got to read a good portion of a book.  The overall time was longer, considering having to come from Shoreview to Minneapolis and waiting forty-five minutes for a local bus ride of three minutes.  The $27.99 I spent for a senior ticket would beat the $50 or so that I would have to spend for gas.  But that’s round trip for gas.  I would be ahead with an SUV over a bus had I taken the bus both ways.  If I had taken the Prius, I would have spent less for gas for a round trip than I would have spent for one way on the bus.

If you consider a family of two or more, then the car is definitely a better deal than a bus trip.

I couldn’t find any quick information about the Northern Lights Express, but my guess is that it may be a good deal for somebody traveling alone city center to city center.  All others would find a car cheaper and quicker.  That’s a hard thing to write for a guy who likes trains.

Mel would move back to Basel but it would be too far from his cabin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

If Texas secedes from the United States…

Will Texans be allowed into the United States without visas?  Will Congress be calling for stricter border controls?  Will gates have to be put at the border of the Interstates and other highways?  How long would the wait be to get from Texas into the United States on I-35 or I-10.  Would it be anything like the crossings from Canada at Sault St. Marie and the Ambassador Bridge?

Maybe many large corporations will headquarter in Texas for lower taxes and fewer regulations.  But will they have the schools and highways that have been subsidized by the United States government?  Will many Americans outside of Texas want to move to a “foreign” country?

Will Texas survive without the Federal government largesse for military bases, NASA, and border control?

These questions were raised in my mind by “From Kurdistan To Texax, Scots Spur Separatists”, Katrin Bennhold, New York Times, 2014-09-10.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Is ISIS Islam's Ku Klux Klan?

The Ku Klux Klan has a corrupt version of Christianity.  If you don’t behave as they wish, they think they have the right to kill you, gruesomely.  ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has a corrupt version of Islam. If you don’t behave as they wish, they think they have the right to kill you, gruesomely. 

The Klan wore white hoods to hide their identity.  ISIS wears black hoods to hide their identity. 
The Klan is still alive and well in the U.S., maybe not as deadly as before, but just as hateful towards those they don’t like.  See “At Gateway to Hamptons, Ku Klux Klan Advertises for New Members”, Al Baker, New York Times, 2014-08-29.  The Klan’s targets are immigrants.

The Klan bombed black churches.  ISIS bombs Shiite mosques.

Christian leaders outside the South condemned the Ku Klux Klan.  Those Christian leaders in the South who spoke out against the Klan would be intimidated overtly or covertly.  An illustration of how much courage it took to stand up for the rights of Negros is “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.

Muslim leaders outside the areas controlled by ISIS have spoken out against ISIS.  One is Othman Atta, Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee.  Some British imams have issued a fatwa calling ISIS “heretical” and stating that it is “prohibited to support or join” ISIS.  A Muslim cleric in India declared ISIS is “not just anti-Islamic but are enemies of humanity as well.”  I can’t verify it with multiple sources, but supposedly ISIS executed 12 clerics in Mosul because they would not swear fidelity to ISIS.

For more see “How Islamic State resembles the Ku Klux Klan”, Brian Denson, The Oregonian, 2014-08-24,

Some are calling on President Obama to do something about ISIS and do it yesterday.  But what can the United States do other than make matters worse?  It is an outside power that really doesn’t understand all the dynamics of other countries and cultures.  Look at the messes in Afghanistan and Iraq.  They were in turn caused by one man, Osama bin Laden, a former ally, who didn’t like the U.S. putting troops into his Holy Land, Saudi Arabia.  Bin Laden decided to strike back at the U.S. and did so several times.  Will ISIS strike back in similar ways?

Consider that fighting ISIS may be fighting two enemies with different agendas.  ISIS are a set of fanatical jihadists who want everyone to follow their way or die.  They are allied with Sunnis who resent the Iraqi government, dominated by Shias, exercising too much control over the Sunni dominated areas.

Wouldn’t you think that Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran would be under a bigger threat from ISIS than the U.S. would?  All of these have bigger armies than ISIS.  It seems only Iran is making any known effort to contain ISIS, and even that is trying to be done with a low profile.

The United States gave over one billion dollars in military assistance to Egypt in 2012.  Egypt can easily spend that as it sees fit.  It has an estimated annual military budget over seven billion dollars.  ISIS supposedly has stolen over two billion dollars, but who will be selling it arms and how much of that money can it actually access and use, like gold bullion?

Saudi Arabia is a big customer of military suppliers.  It has 233,500 active military personnel, over a thousand tanks, and over 200 attack aircraft.  Should not that force be sufficient to overwhelm ISIS with firepower and personnel?  ISIS has more than ten thousand fighters as of July 2014 and estimates keep climbing.  Even if ISIS has 100,000 fighters, would they be a match for Saudi Arabia with all of its aircraft?

King Abdul of Saudi Arabia said recently, “Fight terrorism with force, reason and speed.”

Turkey has been fighting ISIS at its border with some success, but groups like ISIS will keep coming back.

It seems this is another case of “Let’s you and him fight.”  Let the U.S. come in and settle other people’s problem (or think it had) and let the U.S. take the blame if things go wrong.  When it comes to war, Murphy’s law definitely applies.

So I have two big questions.  Why haven’t Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran taken a much larger and forceful role in combatting ISIS?  ISIS is a much greater existential threat to them than to the U.S.  Is President Obama pushing on these countries to do more?

So, your Majesty, why not be the leader of the Islamic world and take on ISIS?  Don’t you have the advantage of force, reason and speed?  You don’t have to get your parliament’s permission, tacit or otherwise.  And you don’t have to get the backing of your people.

Mel keeps wondering who elected the President of the United States as “leader of the free world.”

Published in the Reader Weekly at, 2014-09-04.

The blog version includes corrections to the published version.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Smaller package? Blame Shrinkflation

Years ago we stopped buying fresh orange juice because the packer reduced the containers from 64 ounces to 59 ounces but kept the price the same.  When I emailed the packer I received the answer that is what consumers wanted. “Our consumer research shows that most shoppers, when given a choice between a price increase or slightly less contents, prefer to hold the line on prices.”

I wonder if the “consumer research” was focus groups.  I don’t trust focus groups ever since I was in one.  The moderator kept the session going until we as a group affirmed the client’s choice of brand name, even though few of us liked it.

Today I read Yahoo’s repost of Bloomberg’s “From Chocalate to Beer, Shrinkflation Hits the Supermarket”, Simon Kennedy, Bloomberg, 2014-09-03

Former advisor to George W. Bush, Pippa Malmgren, worries that inflation pressures are rising.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

“Junk science” has been junked

Have you seen the charge that some scientist’s work is “junk science” lately?

It always frosted me when I read an op-ed or letter to the editor that charged that some widely accepted scientific work was “junk science”.  “Junk science” is a contradiction.  If it is “junk” then it is not science.  If it is science, then it is not “junk”.  Science is postulating a hypothesis and then testing it.  If a number of scientists can replicate the tests, then the hypothesis can start to be called a theory.

A good example of a hypothesis that couldn’t be replicated was “cold fusion”.  A single lab coming up with a drug to cure whatever is not really proven until hundreds or even thousands of cases can demonstrate the drug gives the desired results.

I think that those who promoted the idea that the mounting evidence of global warming was “junk science” have finally decided that it was a poor phrase to promote their own interest in a denial of global warming.

I was inspired to write this blog by Dr. Phil Plait’s introduction to “50 popular beliefs that people think are true” by Guy P. Harrison:

“The basic property that makes science science is that it’s self-checking.  You don’t just make an assumption; you test it.  You see if it works the next time you use it. And you don’t assume because it did, it always will.”

And for people who dismiss scientific research with, “It is only a theory”, I hope they don’t walk off any cliffs because gravity is only a theory.

Insurance: good claim service, roundabout technical support

When I hit the bear in June ( I received prompt and courteous service from the online representative to the adjuster to the auto body shop.

When I tried to find where the iPhone App to access my information, I had to go through a cycle of three messages.  On the envelope from some recent documents, there was an ad to have insurance ID cards on my phone.  “Download it today in the Apple App Store or Google Play.”  I could not find it in the Apple App Store no matter what search words I used.

I sent email to the insurance company.  The first reply was to supply my insurance ID and phone number.  I supplied those and received the reply “available in… the Apple store…”

Surely she couldn’t mean a physical Apple Store.  I tried iTunes and bingo!  I sent that news back and received no reply, not even a thank-you for the clarification.

In 2013 there were some rave reviews for the App but the only 2014 reviewer claimed it would not accept his ID and password.  I downloaded it anyway.

None of the screens showed me my insurance ID card, no matter how many promising links I tried.  Then I figured I had to click the lock in the upper right had corner.  Then I had a screen asking for my username and password.  Now I could navigate to copies of the IDs for both cars.  But, oh, it was so easy to misinterpret where the navigation triangles would take me.  Often I wound up back at the log-in screen.

All-in-all I would say that the app was more inconvenient than digging around in the glove compartment for the ID card.  When I hit the bear, I think I found our insurance papers in less time that it would take me to log on to the app.  Also, I don’t need an app to call in a claim; I have the claim number in my contact list.  I can find that phone number in about the same time as I could find the app icon on the right screen.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Early IT Professionals

I was cleaning up my bookmarks and came across this for “Early IT Professionals”.  I thought it would be about Grace Murray Hopper and others.  Nope, but it is a hoot.  You also get to practice your Danish.  You don’t know Danish well or at all.  Not to worry.  There are over titles in both Danish and English.

This clip does replicate many user problems today.  Your can find it at

So you want a union (Part I)

Originally published in the
Northland Reader
now the
August 3, 2000

Peter Kellman (“Freedom of Association”, Northland Reader, July 6) makes several good points about the antagonism of many businesses towards unions and their often extraordinary efforts to block unions.  However, as with many issues, the decline of unions is the result of more than the antagonism of a single group.

I have been involved with unions at two points in my life: once as a supermarket employee while I was in high school and college, and a second time as a bus driver with private companies.

I joined the grocery chain Kroger’s in Cleveland, Ohio as a stock clerk and bagger in the mid-1950s while I was a junior in high school.  I started at $1.05 per hour working two evenings a week and Saturdays.  I also joined the Retail Clerks Union which was a condition of employment.

In many ways it was a great job.  In general everyone worked together to make the store a success.  The manager did his best to give every one a fair shake and a chance for advancement.  Everyone had regular hours week after week; none of this shifting schedules every week.  A regular schedule was also a bit easier to do because the store hours were limited; nine to six Monday through Friday, eight to six on Saturdays, and closed on Sundays.  Probably a quarter of the employees were full-time.

In about four years time I was making $1.75 an hour through a mix of seniority and a new union contract.  The last regular assignment that I remember is coming in at 6:30 to help stock the bread shelves and then relieving cashiers for the rest of the day, leaving with a broad grin at 3:30.

I don’t remember much about union activities.  I think I only attended one union meeting and didn’t find it very interesting.  I remember our excitement when the union’s contract proposal was released.  Some thought that we would get everything in the proposal, not realizing that it was only a negotiating position.  The union did however negotiate many improvements.

When I flunked out of Case Institute of Technology, I asked for full time work at Kroger’s.  Unfortunately, no full-time positions were available at that time.  I spent a few weeks looking for work, finally finding a job at a new supermarket being built by Pick’N’Pay, a local chain.

It was just about the opposite in employee relations that I had experienced in Kroger’s.  Other than Saturday’s, the work schedule was unpredictable, based more on when the trucks came on than anything else.  Even though I was nominally “third man”, the manager made sure that I stayed “part-time” by assigning me less than 35 hours per week of work.  Also, even though employees were required to be members of the Retail Clerks Union, Pick’N’Pay paid me less than I had been getting at Kroger’s.  Complaining to the manager did no good.

Whether it was deliberate or not, the store was designed to divide and conquer.  Like most supermarkets, the meat department was in its own section.  But, the produce and the grocery departments each occupied sections of the back room with little traffic between them.  With little traffic between them, there was little reason for employees of either section to get to know each other.  And produce was where the union steward worked.

Not knowing the union steward well, I turned to a former produce manager at Kroger’s whom I did know well and who was now a union business agent.  Although Pick’N’Pay was not in his jurisdiction, he saw to it that I received the correct pay rate and accrued back pay.

I left Pick’N’Pay in September to go to Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.  I applied for a job at the local Kroger’s and was accepted.  I worked Saturdays and a couple evenings a week as a stock clerk.  Again, I was paid less than I had been getting.

I spoke about this with the manager and he said he would look into it.  Nothing happened.  This time I knew the union steward and spoke to him about the pay rate.  He said he would look into it.  Nothing happened.  Finally, I called the union office in Columbus.  A business agent said that he couldn’t help me; it had been thirty days and they had nothing in writing.  I didn’t go back to Kroger’s the next school year.

The existence of a union does not guarantee good working environment.  A minimally functional union can negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions.  But without strong leadership that involves itself with the union membership, the union is no more than a negotiating team.

To be really strong and work well for its members, a union must be just that: a union of its members working together.  If the members are not involved in their union, then the union becomes another “outside force” like management.  If the members are not involved in their union, then the employees’ interest are of concern only when they match the interests of company or union management.

In the next issue, I’ll draw on my experiences as a bus driver to examine some of the reasons employees don’t always vote in unions.  It isn’t just management antagonism.

©2000, 2006, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree

So you want a union (Part II)

Originally published in
August 17, 2000

So you want a union!  You are going to have to work for it.  Yeah!  I know that’s a bit redundant.  What I mean is that you are going to have to spend time beyond what you spend on the job.

First, you are going to have to convince a small number of your co-workers that a union is in their best interests and convince them to work hard to have a union.

Last, you are going to have to convince a majority of your co-workers that a union is in their best interests.

In between there will be many, many months of hard work passing out information, attending meetings, and talking one-on-one with your co-workers.  The antagonism of your employer towards a union will be only one of your problems.

As a school bus and transit driver I was involved in two organizing efforts with three unions.  Yes, three unions for two efforts, more later.

A year or so before I started with Medicine Lake Lines in Golden Valley, the Amalgamated Transit Union lost a certification vote by a few dozen votes.

Labor laws require a minimum of two years between certification elections.  In 1996 a group of drivers approached the United Steelworkers for help in forming a union.  When I learned of the effort, I was lukewarm partly because I didn’t see how the Steelworkers could represent bus drivers.

I attended one organizing meeting and asked lots of questions.  Meanwhile the company went on the offensive with a series of “mandatory” meetings (with pay) in which they presented their case.  I asked lots of questions.

Some activist employees started an inflammatory newsletter.  I counseled that it would turn more drivers off than it would gain.  At one of the mandatory meetings, two of the editors harassed management instead of presenting reasoned arguments against management points.  Many, many drivers were embarrassed by their tactics.

Unfortunately, the Steelworkers lost the election, and I never heard from them again.  Maybe the more active did, but they didn’t relay that to me.

Moving forward two years, Ryder Student Transportation Services had bought Medicine Lake Lines, and instead of 400 drivers to organize, there were now 1500.  Those activists who still were around and not burned out approached the Teamsters.

At the first meeting at Teamster headquarters that I attended, the organizer in charge said she would make an agenda and stick to it.  She never did.  A great part of the meeting was spent with Harold Yates, the President of the Joint Council, interrupting with tales of his connections and how much he would use them for us.  Some drivers became less enthusiastic about the Teamsters.

The next time I attended a meeting, only three of us went.  We found out that the meeting had been cancelled and that the Teamsters were putting a hold on their activities on our behalf.  I suggested that they at least send out a letter to those on their mailing list.  Several weeks later they did.  I never heard from them again.

One activist driver who now drove for a school district encouraged some of the remaining activists to contact his union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The first meeting that I attended was at the home of Dutch Fischer, an organizer.  Present were two other organizers and four drivers, including the driver who had left.  Over the weeks, the number dwindled until it was often just Dutch and I.  The SEIU had another organizing effort going and wasn’t too happy about stretching their resources.  However, between my continually meeting with Dutch and Dutch spending many days a week talking one-on-one with Ryder drivers, the SEIU decided to go ahead with a full organizing effort.

The SEIU brought in additional organizers to help.  The organizer in charge had already worked on several successful campaigns; she was sure that this one would be successful too.  Her enthusiasm alone should have made it successful.

Management of course began its counterattack.  The meetings weren’t mandatory and weren’t very well attended.  Our terminal manager sounded so reasonable but his arguments were laughable.

Ryder put up posters that if the union did not win they would have a drawing to send one or two families on a vacation trip.  Although they backed off on the condition, the damage was done.  The SEIU filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.  It is still in abitration.

But I don’t think that is the real reason the union lost.  Many drivers really believe that a union will help improve pay and other working conditions.  But many other drivers think that all a union will do is take their dues money.  I heard that argument from drivers who had been in other unions for decades.  I heard that argument from drivers who had little respect for management.

The last time that I heard from Dutch he was still keeping in touch with some of the drivers.  But many of the really active have moved on to other jobs.  Many new drivers have started who have no memory of the past campaigns.

Will the arbitration get through an understaffed bureaucracy in the union’s favor soon?  Will the SEIU make another organizing effort in 2001?  I don’t really know.  I don’t care except sentimentally.  I have moved from the Twin Cities and moved on to other interests.  Like many other workers in many other occupations that could be unionized.

How will unions succeed?  When a majority of employees really believe that a union will be in their best interests.  For that to happen a significant minority of employees must be willing to show up at meetings, willing to write the newsletters and pass them out, willing to talk and talk to their co-workers.  For that to happen the large unions have to support those whom they would represent year after year, not just when success seems likely.

©2000, 2006, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree

A thought for Labor Day

"The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily: and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit, their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work, but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes, the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks, which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year, without employment."

- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

For more selections from Wealth of Nations, see “The Invisible Adam Smith”.