Short takes on science, business, health, agriculture and possibly the kitchen sinkRobert Wise email
In a hidden cave in Kiffelhauser mountain, Emperor Friedrich Rotbart sleeps at a marble table, resting his head on his arms. His long red beard curls around the table from centuries of growth. If ever Germany is threatened, he will instantly waken to defend it.
And in a town meeting somewhere in Florida, Friedrich's 45th cousin, eleven times removed, sleeps at a school cafeteria table, freshly shaven, resting his head on his arms. Fred "Red" Singelweide snores occasionally, as if in deep sleep, yet always alert for the Word that will rouse him to action.
A school board representative reports on overcrowding and recommends expanding three middle schools. A hot discussion follows. Fred snores.
DNR officials report on algae blooms and dying sea grass in the lagoon. They recommend a ban on lawn fertilizers. During the debate, Fred silently dozes.
A police officer rises to describe a recent pit bull attack.
"Whuzzat?" hisses Fred.
"Just a dog attack, Fred," says his neighbor Vince. "Not to worry."
Fred settles down again, as Vince and others debate the ordinance on dog bites. He sleeps peacefully through talks on relocating a soup kitchen, problems with homeless in the libraries, the need for a traffic light at a dangerous intersection.
But he opens one eye when a lady complains that the town's welcome signs look "tacky."
Relaxed again, Fred snores fitfully during a discussion of the county's street maintenance budget. Then a man calls from the back of the crowd.
"Say, where do they keep the tacks for the bulletin board?"
"That does it!" yells Fred, climbing onto his chair. "Mr. chairman!"
"The chair recognizes Mr. Singelweide," calls the chairman, rolling his eyes.
"I oppose the motion, and I votes 'No', and I'll vote 'No' every time it comes up again. We don't need no more taxes here in Florider!
"I'll tell you, I lived fifty years in Philly, paying high taxes every year! I moved here to get away from all that. No income tax, no real estate tax, that's what I came here for.
"If those school kids don't like their double sessions or their prefab classrooms, so what? It's a free country. If they ain't happy, they can, um.. Why, they can just move to Philly and pay high taxes like I did!"
Out of breath, Fred steps down.
"What do you mean about no real estate tax?" asked Vince. "We live three lots down from you, and we pay plenty in real estate tax."
"That's because you don't understand the homestead exemption," snapped Fred. "You pay no tax on the first $25,000. All you have to do is make sure your assessed value doesn't go over that. Every time they raise my assessment too high, I trade down."
"So that's why you bought the old Avon with the blue tarp roof," said Vince.
"Right!" said Fred. "You gotta keep ahead of 'em."
"Maybe you should come to our Republican Club meetings," said Vince. "We're always talking about how to lower taxes."
"But you talk about other stuff, too." said Fred. "Stuff I don't care about -- almost as bad as this town meeting."
He yawned and stretched.
"If I was to mess with a political party, well...it'd have to be one that didn't care about anything but getting rid of taxes."
"That almost sounds like the charter of the Tea Party," said Vince. "Ever been to one of their meetings?"
But Fred's eyes had closed. He was relaxed, slumped over the table again, breathing deeply.
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A Curmudgeon and his Keyboard
[Curmudgeon (ker-mujíen): A grumpy old man with literary pretensions.]
I don't know if I belong in the 21st century. For instance, I refuse to type with my index finger or thumbs. If I started doing hunt-and-pack, I would probably lose a skill that sustained me though thirty years of computer programming: touch typing.
Touch typing means never needing to look at the keyboard. Your fingers know where to find every key, they even know common words by rote, so you can devote your vision and your full attention to whatís coming out on the screen.
I never write or code on a hand-held device, because touch typing requires a full-size qwerty keyboard - one about seven inches from "a" to ";", with keys you can feel. The only hand-held I use, other than a flip phone with real keys, is my pocket GPS - a nifty toy that tells me how far Iíve gone and what my average speed is when Iím biking, rowing or kayaking. (It gets a little crazy when measuring maximum speed. 35mph in a kayak?)
I learned touch typing in a six-week course in 9th grade. (Thank you, Mrs. Fluhr!) I wasnít up to secretarial standards, but could pump out maybe twenty words a minute. As a computer programmer, that gave me a slight edge on coworkers who were staring at their keyboards and pecking with two fingers. (Was I really a good programmer, or did I just make my mistakes faster?)
About those real keys: I despise touch screens. All the ones Iíve dealt with have been picky - sometimes they respond to your touch, sometimes they ignore it. I can understand this behavior in a woman, but itís maddening in an electronic device.
My wife and I went through an ordeal setting up voice mail on her latest "smart" phone (too smart for us, no doubt.) There was a long dialog in which you were supposed to speak into the phone, get a response, then press the pound key to confirm. The actual procedure was like this:
No doubt the phone had a setting somewhere for how fast the screen blacked out, and if we had located its user manual online, downloaded it and looked up the settings, we could have changed it. But, silly us, we just went with the factory settings.
Speaking of touch screens and touchpads, Iíd like to pronounce a curse on the inventor of the two-finger zoom. May his crops wither in the field, may his cattle sicken and die, etc. Two-finger zoom is nice for enlarging an image on a cell phone, I guess. But in a map display, it blocks the roam function.
Try to roam in a map display using a touch device, and the software will decide you want to zoom. Itíll zoom you out to a picture of the solar system, or zoom in to a blade of grass, and the only way youíll ever get to see the area you were interested in is to kill the program and start again. My favorite map service has become much less useful since it adopted this feature.
The other day a cell phone salesman, putting the final touches on our new account, politely handed me his little tablet computer. On this, I was to peck out a hundred-odd characters of contact info. In his view, he had offered me the latest in modern convenience. In mine, he might as well have handed me a telegraph key.
Anyone remember data entry terminals? Paper forms? Terminals? ..oh, well..
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Rambling from cool Caribbean to frozen Midwest
My wife and I were at home less than half the month of December. We took a cruise to Central America followed by a long visit to our Wisconsin in-laws over Christmas.
Early December was an ideal time to cruise the Caribbean, with highs in the low 70's and a constant breeze. Not the trade winds, but a northwesterly wind most of the time. I can't remember ever being so comfortable in Cozumel. Early mornings on deck were downright chilly.
The cruise lines may not earn any profit on our travels. We always book at a bargain price, and don't buy many of the onboard services or products. No drinks unless at half price; minimal internet service to check email; some shore excursions, and maybe some watches or jewelry when the onboard shops run their big sales. No spa services, "nominal charge" specialty restaurants or any of those expensive amenities they tell you that you deserve.
The shore excursion guides seemed waiver-crazy on this trip. Every excursion we took required a waiver, even a bus tour of Belize City. The cruise lines assure you that all their tour operators are licensed and insured, but what does that matter if you have to sign away your rights up front? Don't they trust themselves to keep people safe on a bus tour or a nature walk?
Cruise travel brings you into close contact with folks of every economic class, from the ship's officers to the assistant waiters and cabin stewards, down to the guys scraping and painting on deck. (They all work hard, and we never skimp on the "suggested" tips.) Economic inequality is no abstraction here.
Going ashore, you meet people who are quite poor by North American standards. In Belize City the vendors kept close track of deposit bottles. One shopkeeper complained when I didn't bring back a beer bottle. When I went to fetch it from the trash at a nearby stall, it was gone; a lady pointed me to a row of bottles she had saved nearby.
In a better world, there would be more local industry and less dependence on tourism in these countries. On Roatan island, we were told that commercial agriculture had been replaced by the tourism industry. But as it is, we visitors bring some welcome revenue.
We snorkeled among beautiful fish along the Mesoamerican Reef in Honduras, and later viewed the same reef from a glass bottomed boat two hundred miles north in Costa Maya; it's the second longest reef system in the world, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
On Roatan I saw a three hundred yard long file of ants, each one carrying a fragment of green leaf several times its size. They were stripping a tree somewhere and carrying all the leaf material back to their nest in a huge rotted log. "Army ants," I thought. But these were Leafcutter Ants, not the ones who overran the plantation in that Charleton Heston movie. We were warned not to step into these guys' line of march, because of their wicked bite.
Costa Maya, an isolated wharf and shopping village created for the cruise industry, seemed to have more Mayan-style art and architecture than Chichen Itza. It was colorfully painted and probably very similar to the originals. We bought hand-monogramed rings and colorful ID bracelets, made to order while we watched. The techniques were simple, but the craftsmen were quick and worked to a high standard of quality.
We returned home for a few days of shopping and a little decorating, before starting on our annual trip to Wisconsin. We've always spent the Christmas holidays with Kae's family and gotten our annual taste of snow and ice. But there was no snow at all this year; the remains of a November blizzard had completely melted. Temperatures were above freezing the first few days, before working down to a more normal range. We kept seeing forecasts of snow flurries, but never saw a single flake.
My sister and brother in law live a few blocks from a wilderness preserve, so I was able to take a long walk in the woods every morning. Even with no snow on the ground, the yellow-brown landscape had a stark beauty, with low morning sun shining through bare branches. The ponds and creek had a light coating of ice that thickened day by day.
This may have been the last of our Christmas visits. The inlaws all say they want to celebrate Christmas in Florida next year. We'll see no snow or ice, for sure.
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Small Business Saturday: Promoting Small Businesses and One Great Big One
With some suggestions for making it better
You'll see lots of ads urging you to shop at a local small business on Small Business Saturday, the day after Black Friday. Can't think of any local small businesses besides restaurants? The Small Business Administration (SBA) can help. On their website, click on the link
Which is more or less fair, because American Express (AMEX) hosts the Shop Small map. It created Small Business Saturday in 2010 and has promoted it every year since. AMEX is offering its cardholders a cash bonus up to $30 for shopping at small businesses where its card is accepted on Small Business Saturday.
Why would any business not accept the AMEX card? To avoid paying its transaction fees. On average, AMEX charges about 3.5% of the price of each sale, versus 2-3% for other major credit cards. AMEX cardholders often find shops refusing the card because of the high fees. But higher fees actually fit in with AMEX's business plan, the Spend-Centric Model.
While other credit card issuers earn significant interest on unpaid balances, AMEX profits mainly from cardholder and merchant fees. It targets wealthy shoppers who tend to spend more money and buy higher-margin merchandise. It charges them higher annual fees, and provides them better "rewards".
For instance, holders of AMEX's Platinum card pay $450 a year, but have free admission to over 600 airport lounges worldwide, and pay no foreign transaction fees when using the card abroad. (Visa and Master Card also offer some high-end cards with similarly high fees and rewards.)
How many small firms are left out of the Shop Small map? Impossible to say. When I scanned it for local businesses in my area, nearly every one was included. The map even includes participating businesses you might not know were small or local -- the "invisible indies" I've mentioned elsewhere.
I found only a few omissions. One was an error, which was being corrected. Two other business owners I spoke with were not aware of Small Business Saturday at all. Neither could have been shown on the Shop Small map, since they don't accept AMEX.
To be clear, AMEX doesn't exclude any business from participating in Small Business Saturday. Firms who are not AMEX clients can register to get an assortment of tailored promotional materials. AMEX clients also get shown on the Shop Small map, participate in the cash bonus offer, and get free online ads throughout the year.
So I'm complaining about a minor flaw in Small Business Saturday. It's a useful event for a great many merchants, helping them to leverage the shopping frenzy of the post-Thanksgiving weekend. Judging from what I've heard locally and seen on the internet, a majority of small businesses are participating. Many are planning special promotions for the day.
But there are two ways the event could be made even better. First, SBA could host its own Shop Small map, showing the location of all small businesses -- probably a significant effort, at taxpayer expense. Or, if AMEX wished to be more generous, it could show all participating firms on its map, identifying those who accept their card with a different symbol. It would probably take a couple of simple enhancements to their software, plus some more disk storage.
Either change would offer a boost to the smallest of small businesses -- the ones who can't afford much in transaction charges, but really could use some extra promotion. (I've also made these suggestions directly to SBA and AMEX.)
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American Express ShopSmall map and search engine
Nerd Wallet: "Why do so few retailers accept American Express"
Quora.com: "Why are transaction fees for American Express So Much More.."
Revisions to this post: Sun, Nov 23: Added some text.
Dust storms again in the High Plains
where farmers struggle against drought, wind and salt
A cold Arctic air mass swept southward across the high plains last Tuesday, its 50 mph winds dropping temperatures by 50 degrees overnight. Blowing over drought-parched farm soil, the wind created a huge dust storm in eastern Colorado, visible in striking photographs from aircraft and from space. The same region had seven dust storms last year. In 2012, a severe dust storm caused multiple traffic accidents in northern Oklahoma.
"You hear sand and dirt pounding against the window," said Colorado farmer Dave Hixson after a 2013 storm. "You know that it's your crop that's hitting the windows and blowing away, and it's not just affecting you, but also everyone else."
Wind takes nearly half the soil eroded from American farmlands. It does its worst in parts of the high plains, where agriculture is pushing its limits: eastern Colorado and nearby regions of Oklahoma and Texas, as well as North Dakota. East of the high plains, severe wind erosion affects the Red River valley of North Dakota-Minnesota. Unprotected soil blows away many times faster than it forms in these regions.
Dust clouds make a spectacle, but much more happens at the soil surface. Wind rolls tiny clods along the ground to smash into other clods and release fine dust. It bounces smaller particles high in the air to impact a few feet downwind, stirring other particles and dust. The rolling and bouncing grains collect into drifts, sometimes forming dunes that can propagate downwind to smother undamaged cropland.
Wind erosion works as a sieve, removing the small particles of organic matter, loam and clay that make soil fertile and leaving a sandy, infertile residue. It can degrade the soil to plow depth in one season on an unprotected field.
Many farmers protect soil from the wind with a cover of untilled crop stubble. Sometimes they sow a cover crop in fall to protect the ground until planting time. They manage the soil's chemistry and moisture content to make it clod better and resist wind damage. Some install various windbreak structures, from permanent grass strips to rows of blue spruce trees.
Much of the cropland in the high plains is watered from wells, about half of them drawing on "fossil water" stored from prehistoric times in the Ogalalla aquifer. The Ogalalla has lost about 9% of its volume since 1950, as irrigated row crops have boomed. In some counties, its level is now dropping up to two feet per year. Farmers are forced to turn to less thirsty crops or grazing, or to give up irrigation altogether.
Farmers in Kansas, Texas and Colorado have been making voluntary reductions in water use to preserve the aquifer. The Natural Resources Conservation Service is promoting water conservation with its Ogalalla Initiative . But Colorado now requires farmers to comply with the state's groundwater rules or have their wells shut down.
With dry fields and irrigation comes the risk of salinization. All ground water contains some dissolved minerals, which can build up in the soil if it dries out often. Ogalalla water can potentially cause salinization, and the risk may increase as farmers cut back on water use.
In the Red River Valley, farmers are dealing with natural salinity in the soil, made worse by recent increases in rainfall. Researchers used satellite sensors in a recent study to begin monitoring soil salinity there.
Cropland in the valley may soon be at additional risk from flood as well as drought, if the Red River Diversion project goes ahead as planned. Levees upstream of Fargo, ND will divert flood waters into local farmland, letting them drain through a 36 mile ditch around the city. South Dakota and Minnesota farmers are protesting the plan, as is the governor of Minnesota. The Red River has flooded in 49 of the last 110 years.
Severe salinization can form salt pans in the midst of cropland, as seen in this photograph from southwestern Australia:
Forecasts for the next 20 to 30 years call for more frequent droughts in the U.S. southwest -- overlapping the southern high plains. Droughts will be caused by climate cycles in Atlantic and Pacific water temperatures, further boosted by global warming. Some climate studies have predicted more dust storms in the region as higher temperatures damage the natural vegetation. These predictions led one science writer to warn of "dustbowlization", and probably provided some inspiration for the film Interstellar.
Agriculture stretches to the limits of available moisture here. The wave of homestead settlement washing the central states in the 19th century thinned and stopped in the western reaches of the high plains. The largest homesteads were too small to earn a living and only giant farms and ranches prospered. Groundwater irrigation, literally "water mining" in this context, sparked a boom half a century ago which now seems to be receding. And in these plains, where farming and ranching already push their limits, the limits themselves are tightening.
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Satellite image of dust storm, NASA Earth Observatory
"Massive dust storms hit southeast Colorado, evoking 'dirty thirties'", Denver Post
"Erosion of Soil by Wind," Soil: USDA Yearbook of Agriculture 1957
KSU Wind Erosion Research Unit, Multimedia Archive
"High plains aquifer dwindles, hurting farmers," NY Times
Water conservation efforts in San Luis Valley, Colorado
NRCS Announces Ogalalla Initiative
High Plains Encyclopedia, Univ of Nebraska - Lincoln
Satellite imagery helps USDA tackle problem soil salinity, Space News
"Wolf to irrigators: comply or be shut down", Valley Courier
"Why the Southwest keeps seeing droughts", Weather Channel
"Dayton blasts North Dakota over Red River diversion project", Star TribuneRevisions to this post:
Wed 19 Nov: Added some photo credits.