When I read Paul Krugman's note about critiques of government services in America being a bit detached from reality I thought "sure, great point in theory, pity you illustrated it with the Post Office." Now, Krugman says "Maybe I'm living a sheltered life here in central New Jersey," and perhaps it's an metropolitan versus small-town thing, but the Post Office is not a good advertisement for the Federal Government providing customer service.
It has struck me that all of the Americans who have visited us in New Zealand this year have commented on how nice the staff are at the post office. One of the great things about Australasia is that small retail post offices are contracted out to book stores and newsagents, a class of the retailing industry where I think you tend to get decent service anyway (at least in my travels in the English-speaking world).
A few years back I recall the USPS proposed contracting out post offices to retailers, but stopped because it would give those firms an unfair advantage. Huh? If firms perceive there's an advantage in also providing postal services they could bid for the local rights to do it. Though it's quite possible that the rights might be worth less than the costs, and USPS would be paying them for it. Contracting out parts of the retail postal service might have improved the terrible location of many central city American post offices (not in central retail districts, not in malls; you have to drive them often). Probably rightly the USPS doesn't want to pay central city retail rents for space they are using for sorting and other operational needs. But there's no need that the selling stamps etc couldn't be done at more retail outlets.
It could hardly be worse than the experience at USPS. Many Americans probably aren't aware of this, but sending an international parcel is something you need to put on your calendar it takes so long. The absurdly duplicative customs declaration forms, the total confusion of the stupid staff about where some foreign countries are (you work in a post office, you should know these things!), it literally drives me to Fed Ex some of the time.
At Fed Ex, as Nate Silver points out, the experience isn't much better. The staff are not so much surly like at USPS as disinterested, young, and not very well-trained. The USPS staff more often give the impression of knowing the rules and processes, but not caring to use them in your service.
So I've had lots of banal, lousy customer service at the USPS. But my single best story comes from a 1am trip to FedEx Kinkos to get copies done for a work presentation. In the hour I spent trying to get the printer to print properly (the totally disinterested 1am clerk had no ability to fix anything, but thankfully didn't charge me for all the paper wasted in trying to get the right printing done), I shared the computer space with a morbidly obese man who was talking to himself and masturbating through his shorts while surfing cherryblossoms.com (warning: obviously NSFW unless you're in academia and this would be research into multimedia).
It would have completed the picture of the ugly side of American life if he had been eating McDonalds and there had been an armed robbery (1am - 2am, remember), but sadly that was the whole of the story.
The Post Office isn't open at 1am for people like this, so I suppose that makes FedEx just slightly better ...
On United Airlines' reservations page. Wouldn't it be a good idea to have correct spelling in a paragraph asking people to have their correct names on their tickets?
Denver airport, 7 November 2008.
What is it they say about making sure you have possession of your bags at all times at airports?
Too much time on the road the last few weeks, all for good reasons.
It's an HTML file ... Firefox can open that, right??
The first image is from an Air New Zealand safety card (apologies for camera shake), the second is of a Playmobil woman. Notice the similarity in their hairstyles.
... but a little busy. And these hiatuses (hiati?) are why you have RSS feeds :)
I think there are other ways to get your vitamins than from diet cola or supplements ...
What kind of programmers do they employ at weather.com who believe November has 31 days and that we are still on daylight savings time?
This takes the prize for the least useful item ever seen in the Skymall catalog.
Still in the pool. I hope to be cleared to resume "terrestrial running" soon ... dissertation off with its readers for the moment ... I have more time to aqua run. The goal is to do the equivalent of a hundred mile week in the pool this week. In the pool you can do this in singles since there's no impact stress. There's only potential boredom, and I solved that one long ago. In fact last night I did 2 hours, barely 12 hours later I did another 2 hours. On dry land I'm not sure that I'd ever contemplate doing 16-17 miles in the evening and then getting up early to do it again. Sure, I'd do it that was the way to get the workout in, but not an ideal arrangement.
Anyhow, I spend a lot of time in the pool bobbing up and down and taking up a lane that could otherwise be used by actual swimmers. A part of me feels a little guilt that I cannot back up this assertion with records, but I firmly believe that the swimmers come in, see me, look at the other lanes, and only choose to double up with me if the swimmers they would have to share with are large or clumsy.
When I go to the pool I'm squinting a little since I don't have my contact lenses in, nor my glasses on. I have the delusion that affects every partially sighted person—if I can't see other people (very well) they can't see me.
It's a delusion. One of the lifeguards (at least) must recognize me, because last night she said "Do you run marathons?"
"Yes, I do," I replied.
"I thought so, I saw your photo in a magazine, a little local magazine ... [trying to think of the name]
"Twin Cities Sports."
"Yes, that's the one."
"Well, now I have a stress fracture!"
"Yes, it's so lovely outside for running you'd have to have a good reason for running in the pool."
My next post-dissertation-to-readers ambition is that I'll write a semi-intellectual blog posting on some matter of historical or political importance, rather than aqua running.
The change of the seasons brings about short memories in many in Minnesota (and probably in other similar climates). The first warm day there is a widespread delusion that there will be no more snow, and that life is good at 45°F and sunny. But there will be cold rain in our spring, and nearly a month before the trees are green. But life is good, and snow is fun.
(The photo is taken on the Mississippi River beach between the Minnesota Commercial Railroad bridge and the Lake St bridge in Minneapolis)
Compulsory reading today: City Pages' 2004 article on how winter in Minnesota used to kill (lots of) people. Now it just makes for a longer commute a few days a year. Choice quotes:
Like most Minnesotans, you think our long, cold winters have made you a tougher and more virtuous person .... The hardships of the Minnesota winter have been so softened by technology, by the designs of our cities and suburbs and cars and homes, by our colossal commitment to making the Great Indoors ever more cushy, as to be rendered all but unrecognizable ....
... the risk of freezing to death was a major concern for early Minnesotans. Reports of frostbite and self-amputation are common .... the most persistent hazard of the Minnesota winter was not cold per se; it was starvation .... she asked Captain Jouett if he knew which was the best portion of a man to eat .... If you page through 19th-century Minnesota newspapers, you will routinely encounter tales of blizzard survival--and, of course, tales of death ....
Here's how the New York Times reported the effects of the blizzard of January 1873:
I don't know what to say, yet there is so much to say! How many people outside Australia, New Zealand and Barack Obama's press office know who John Howard is anyway?
Nevertheless at 6.10am in the morning, espresso not yet made, my interest was piqued to investigate. Apparently the man is alive and well, and on track to go down in history as [yet another] Prime Minister who should have resigned while he was ahead. But we'll see ... Little Johnny Howard has pulled out an election win before from down in the polls.
What was making the news was not John Howard's heart attack, but something that—given the man's love and ardor for 13 sweaty, brawny men, I speak of the Australian cricket team—should have given John Howard a heart attack: Australia's 3-0 series loss to New Zealand in a one-day cricket series.
And what a series. After being bowled out for 148 in the first match and losing by 10 wickets, Australia then could not defend totals of 337 and 347. Wow. Major wow. Wish I'd been there. It's like the Twins sweeping the Yankees in a series, there's your upper Midwestern baseball analogy in the interests of cultural exchange.
The Sydney Morning Herald's headline was "blackwash," (New Zealand wear black uniforms), while the New Zealand Herald went with "whitewash." Great victory. But what I saw nowhere in any report on the 3rd match (a dead rubber that actually produced entertainment!) was that New Zealand conceded 5 extras, and Australia 27. It's lovely to say that batting won the day for New Zealand, but in the end extras won the day.
For the baseball fans (if any are still reading) an extra is like a walk. The most common "extra" is if the delivery (pitch) goes too wide for the batsman to reasonably hit, then the opposing team gets one run, and an extra delivery. So whereas you can and do walk an opposing batter in baseball as a matter of good tactics you can't do that in cricket. You're giving away a run for sure, plus the extra delivery, the expected value of which is typically about one run (but might be higher or lower).
Now the cricket purists might object that sometimes you might chance a wide delivery to soften a batter up, and surprise him by coming back in with the next ball, but that's "Advanced Cricket."
27 extras in a match should give John Howard a heart attack.
and eat all the marzipan pig. A serving is half a pig.
Whatever you were thinking of doing, just don't do it.
(from Nerstrand Big Woods Park)
A reasonable explanation for the sign appeared down the trail where there was an "Animal Exclosure Area" sign. Come to think of it, why didn't I take a photo of that? An "Exclosure" area ... Without a fence either. The animals were just meant to read the sign. Some very literate deer down there. Anyway, it seemed that the area beyond "NO!" was one the DNR is trying to "renew" in some way, and let the undergrowth grow back.
While I don't normally link to silly time-wasting sites, this is worth your 20 seconds.
Occasionally when typing I get my fingers on the wrong keys, typically one key to the left and things come out like this
IxxAUBkkt qgwb rtoubf
In case it's not clear, that's "Occasionally when typing" shifted one key to the left (the placement of your caps lock may differ)
In principle it should be pretty easy, given the standard layout of the QWERTY keyboard, to write a program that would translate that text to its correct characters ... what would be great is if you could highlight the nuartows rwzr (mistyped text), right click, and bring up a menu that would translate. Just like how you can highlight text and change the case.
Perhaps the demand for this "feature" is not very high.
I know they said the overnight lows were going to drop a little, but a 20% chance of freezing rain? On the 4th of July? At least we can turn the AC off ...
Patti Ryan "Esq." apparently writes on behalf of the late Strom Thurmond.
We act as solicitors and our services have been retained by late Sen. Strom Thurmond, here in after referred to as our client. On behalf of late Sen. Strom Thurmond, We write to notify you that my late client made you a beneficiary to the bequest sum of Nine Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars in the codicil to his will and last testament. He died at the age of 100. This bequest is to support your activities, humanitarian services, help to the less-privileged and research work.
I have many questions for Patti Ryan, not least of which is: If she claims to be a British lawyer (her contact telephone number is British) shouldn't she know that "Esq." denotes a gentleman, and not a lawyer of either gender like in America.
It intrigues me that the media in Minnesota (the TV news, for example) refers to summer as distinct three month periods that coincide with the equinox and the solstice, when that's clearly out of sync with other tendencies of the season. Early December with snow and temperatures well below freezing is clearly "winter," at least to me, not late fall.
Same with summer. It starts well before June 21. There are some very reliable signs of summer I see when running and I've seen them all in the past week.
Summer is here ...
Mr. Cardello Ian writes:
Dear Friend, This may come to you as a surprise, But I plead your indulgence to listen to me and get this important details. I am from the Hadassah hospital where I serve as the director of operation. I am by name Dr. Cardello Ian . As you may be aware of the situation on ground as regard the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
He has disclose to me a personal savings which he has managed to put together to run the up coming election before it sudden stroke of 4th January 2006.
In the case of Sharon's illness, however, he has been declared permanently incapciatated and elections has already occured.Thus, the need for the fund transfer.
He has given me the order to look for a reliable personnel of your calibre to assist him in reprofiling a certain amount of funds which is undisclose at the moment.
As soon as I get your willingness and confidentiality to forge ahead in executing this transaction, I will let you into confidential information on how to execute the transaction. Meanwhile, Be aware that the percentage sharing of the fund will be divided in this manner, 30 % will go to me and you will get the same 30% . The wife and children goes with 30% while 10% is used for any expenses we may incurred in the process of transfering the funds to your account. Thus, I am thanking you in advance for your cooperation in finalising with this transaction swiftly.
Now, that is very creative. But who would be silly enough to believe that kind of thing?
They say you learn something every day. Here's some stuff I've learned already this week
The holiday season always finds me reading more stuff in print and less on the internet. One of the perils of being a social historian is that in your search for interesting evidence you read a lot of dull printed matter. Really, the newspapers and magazines of the past were not much better than what we read today. So it's nice to read good stuff in print.
Like the Financial Times. I happened upon a copy of the weekend FT today and found it to be like a smaller version of the Guardian or the Times, which put out substantial weekend editions. That take a whole weekend to read in full. Growing up in that newspaper wasteland that was New Zealand it was always exciting to get to Australia and enjoy the Weekend Australian or The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald. Or all three. As my uncle used to say, they call it the Weekend Australian because it takes you the whole weekend to read it. Something you could never say of the Sunday Star Tribune, where my challenge is to see if the interesting bits add up to more than an hour's reading. And the interesting stuff in the Star Tribune includes the coupons.
The British papers are always great to read. The opinion columnists are more acerbic, more cynical, less respectful of power, less predictable, engaged in politics without being partisan.
I also happened across Esquire magazine over the New Year weekend. Nothing terribly intellectual, but one article stood out: Thomas Barnett's argument against the current round of China-bashing. I can understand why some American politicians would want to make sure that America remains the world's largest economy. Money begets power and all that. But the idea that China's growing economy is a threat to the United States is absurd. If young Chinese grow up thinking that America tried to keep them poor that will lead to conflict. If China believes America has helped it to grow there could be conflict (you can never rule anything out), but it will be far less likely.
Today's A.Word.A.Day was "nival": Of, growing in, or relating to, snow.
I've never heard or seen this word in conversation or print, and I live in a place where the incidence of snow is high.
The Nigerian spam migrates to another oil-rich country ...
As you read this, I don't want you to feel sorry for me, because, I believe everyone will die someday. My name is Gerhard Toril merchant from Norway. On 10th Feburary 2002 myself and my family and my business partner took a flight from kish to sharjah and we flew kish airline.We had a plane crash and all members of my family including my very good friend lost thier lives.
I give thanks to God that i am one of the lucky ones that survived the crash.The airline was under the management of one Mr Shabab Attarzadeh who was later sacked after this incidence.I had to return to my home town in Norway and i am now left with my relatives to take care of me. I have been diagnosed with Esophageal cancer .It has defiled all forms of medical treatment, and right now I have only about a few months to live, according to medical experts.
I have not particularly lived my life so well, as I never really cared for anyone (not even myself) but my business. Though I am very rich, I was never generous, I was always hostile to people and only focused on my business as that was the only thing I cared for.But now I regret all this as I now know that there is more to life than just wanting to have or make all the money in the world.I believe when God gives me a second chance to come to this world I would live my life a different way from how I have lived it. Now that God has called me, I have willed and given most of my property and assets to my immediate and extended family members as well as a few close friends. I want God to be merciful to me and accept my soul so, I have decided to give aims to charity organizations, as I want this to be one of the last good deeds I do on earth.So far, I have distributed money to some charity organizations in the U.A.E, Somalia and Malaysia. Now that my health has deteriorated so badly, I cannot do this myself anymore. I once asked members of my family to close one of my accounts and distribute the money which I have there to charity organization in Bulgaria and Pakistan; they refused and kept the money to themselves.Hence, I do not trust them anymore, as they seem not to be contended with what I have left for them. It is my fervent hope that you will,with open mind,read,and respond positively to this heartfelt message of propagating the God's work.
The last of my money which no one knows of is the huge cash deposit of Twenty Eight Million dollars ($28, 000, 000, 00) that I have with a finance/Security Company abroad. I will want you to help me collect this deposit and dispatch it to charity organizations.
I have set aside 30% for you and for your Effort. May God bless you as you respond to my plea.
Mr. Gerhard Toril
This road sign, at mile 43 on I-94, just near Menomonie (WI) has always struck me as interesting.
Make of it what you will.
All the story lacked was the headline "Local man found guilty" to complete the resemblance to "America's Finest News Source".
Snelling Lake in Fort Snelling State Park. One of my favorite places. Beautiful running and the chance to watch the planes landing.
I guess any informal help I've given people ain't worth anything ...
Madge, the Palmolive detergent lady, was American! (via this review, reprinted in the Guardian Weekly). When I was a kid Madge was on New Zealand TV (TV2, because the other channel—just two channels until I was 15—did not have commercials). But Madge had an Australian accent: "You're soaking een eet," was how her signature line came across.
I also learned why some people don't like running in the rain. I've learned this before, but the rain here is so seasonal that I forget. Used to run in the rain a lot owing to the "maritime climate" I grew up in. That's a euphemism for "It can rain a lot, anytime of the year." Now my precipitation comes in a different form—that would be snow—and how nice it is to run when snow is falling. Rain, not so much. Now I just tolerate it.
Bloglines "Mark All Read" feature could be labeled "Get Work Done!" Today I have just read my "Local" (that's all you folks in the Twin Cities) and Running feeds.
I did take time to read this article in the Washington Post about high school cross-country training, in which they re-discover that some high schoolers are running 80-100 mile weeks in summer. It's a pretty balanced article on a topic that can generate a lot of emotion. There'll never be a resolution of this question because high schoolers can be at such varying levels of physical development, even at the same age. Personally, I had a great year running in [the equivalent of] my senior year after putting in a summer in which I ambled around for up to 80 miles a week. On trails. That was pretty key -- the trails kept it fun and the impact on the body is so much lower. Speedwork (IIRC) consisted of fartlek, some tempo runs (a new thing then), and 10 x 1 minute with and 10 x 30 second (even recovery) closer to races. In between the cross country (June-August) and track (October-December) seasons I recall going back to the trails and not doing much, if any, speedwork at all. Out of all that I got myself a low 17 5km (road), and more importantly a 20:48 6km (road race) in the national secondary schools race I was peaking for. I'd be happy to be running those times again.
Back to the 19th century ...
Two contradictory images of women in public life in Colorado. First, this float in front of the State Capitol suggests ... well, I don't quite know ... A chocolate fish for the best interpretation
A p.s. to the previous entry, and farewell to the Minnesota State Fair for another year.
Wandering behind the back of the Food building we spied the not-so-well-known "Cup Office," where the vendors get bulk pricing on cups. I do not claim that this is the most interesting thing you'll ever see at the Fair, but it was a little peek behind the scenes.
(Click on image for larger view)
Went back to the Fair just once last week, and indulged on many of the fine delicacies it offers.
The seed art picture of Bob Dylan must qualify as the ultimate union of two Minnesota icons. Though you will note that the artist is from Washington State. Oh well, the fair and Bob Dylan are both worthy of wide audiences.
The seed art also featured several political pieces. All were opposing the war in Iraq and the current President. I did not notice any pro-Bush seed art, but perhaps Republicans don't realize the importance and propaganda value of effective seed art yet. Seed art, it's the new direct mail ...
As always, the dairy princesses were a site to see. This was the first time I'd seen a dairy princess with glasses. A butter sculpting challenge no doubt.
A few weeks ago I finally made it down to the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge, but as I was running did not have a camera. With my parents visiting for about the fourth time in the five years I've been here, I needed a new place to take them, so off we went to my new favorite trail. With the camera.
We saw what is effectively pond scum, but my, it was pretty ...
This (below) is looking west across Long Meadow Lake
We also saw lots of carp in a culvert near Long Meadow Lake. The Refuge staff are trying to kill the carp as they are bad, bad, bad for the ecosystem down there.
And, it's late August in the Twin Cities, so while it could still be 90° any day, the first signs of fall are already appearing.
Among the activities that have diverted me to the mostly-picture, little-text entries (a picture is worth 1000 words, right?) is that it is Minnesota State Fair time. I've already been once. There might be another couple of trips. Always good times at the State Fair.
Still waiting for them to introduce the multi-day visit ticket ... If they sold a $20 ticket that would let you visit several times over the life of the event, I'd be a taker. I'm sure there would be many others. There's only so much food you can try at any one time at the fair, and if you can visit multiple times you can try more tasty things. The deep fried candy bars are still good.
The Strib has a neat article today on new eats at the fair. Some of these sound promising!
Another favorite at the fair is the Miracle of Birth. On Thursday only 2 lots of lambs and one litter of piglets had been born. There should be more at the next visit.
I'm back ... did you miss me? Thought not. But any regular readers should have an RSS feed ...
Posting will continue to be light the next couple of weeks, but the magic of pictures should keep you entertained when I do post.
Child accidents are no laughing matter (see, for example, the grisly catalog of child deaths in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives).
But I still found this label kinda funny ... I don't know why. I've always found warning signs and labels worth photographing.
More random observations from the road may follow at a later date, but for now ...
I trust all regular [American] readers enjoyed their Memorial Day holiday, and readers elsewhere enjoyed whatever Bank Holiday or Queens Birthday (observed) they might have had.
Just possible. But very possible. That's a little better. How possible is very possible?
Is it greater than probably? Perhaps not.
Maybe fortune cookies should come with a probability distribution instead of a deterministic statement ...
The Onion's horoscope for Libra's this week reads:
The proper course of future action becomes clear this week when the stars in your sign mystically align and spell out, "You still owe Evan 10 bucks."
I'm a generous man. Interest will be 2% p.a. on your debt, well below prime.
It's a commonplace observation that kids these days grow up so fast. In the sense that 'kids' hit puberty about 3-4 years earlier than they did a century ago they do grow up fast! It's not just the misperceptions of memory and anxieties of parenthood colliding.
On the train to Chicago I noticed several girls who must have been at least 10, probably older, carrying dolls. They weren't all related either. Four different families, it seemed. Four makes it a trend worth commenting on! A social fact, no less.
Perhaps Amtrak really is that scary, that 11 year old girls need the dolls of their earlier years to comfort them on the journey. When I was that age I don't think girls would have been caught in public carrying a doll. But this wasn't the first time I'd seen older girls carrying dolls around -- I've seen it elsewhere recently. And not just on scary public transport. Don't get me wrong, it's not like every 11 year old girl I've seen recently has been clasping her American Girl, but it seems more common than I would have thought.
Have things changed? Is it now socially acceptable amongst the pre-early pubescent set for girls to carry dolls in public?
It might not be the 5th of May, but right on schedule we're going to have a big snow storm here, or so they say. Given the winter we've had, I'll believe the snow when I see it. But it's the Minnesota boys state basketball tournament weekend. It always snows this weekend, right?
Cool story (thanks, Jim!) in the Strib about a woman who is walking every street in Minneapolis. This has less cultural cachet than walking every street in Manhattan. Minneapolis has 370 extra miles of street, however.
Good luck to her! I once ran every street in the western suburbs of Wellington. It didn't take me long, and I learned that I really did prefer the trails. And that was in a city where the absence of a grid system and many undulations made the endeavor more interesting (if harder to plan). Occasionally I amble through Longfellow on my runs in Minneapolis. If you've seen one of the avenues, you've pretty much seen what the rest of them look like ...