December 31, 2005

The Supremes

A recent analysis of the transcripts of the Supreme Court by Prof. Jay Wexler of Boston University has revealed that Justice Antonin Scalia is 19 times funnier than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Here is an example of Supreme humor from the transcripts:

"Recently I lost my luggage," Justice Kennedy said. "I had to go to the lost and found at the airline, and the lady said has my plane landed yet."


This one got a laugh for Chief Justice Roberts, during an argument about assisted suicide:

"The relationship between the states and the federal government has changed a little since Gibbons v. Ogden." (A landmark decision in 1824 about national regulation of the economy.)

Professor Wexler said he had decided not to pursue laughter-per-question research.

"That's not going to happen," he said. "Unless I get a grant."

Stray Voltage Task Force

One of the best parts about Christmas is that my family always sends a package of gifts packed in crumpled up pages from the Owatonna People's Press. I carefully spread them flat and spend the holidays catching up on hometown petty crime, Dear Abby and advertisements. Beats comfort food hands down. Judging by the People's Mess, oldtime hometown pal Mark Woodrich is doing well for himself working at Gillespie Real Estate. And, the Somali soccer team in town recently won the southern MN regional championship.

I ran across a disturbing article the other day, and mark it down as yet another sign of the CGS. From the November 26 edition, Researchers ponder: 'What's killing the cows?':

Bernard, Roger and Russ Frederick moved their Highland Dairy operation to a new facility in 1998, and their apparently healthy cows began to die. The herd is now down to 330 cows, more than 200 fewer than the original number. The problem is apparently industry-wide and may be linked to something called stray voltage. The Dairy Industry Stray Voltage Task Force has now been formed of experts from around the upper midwest at the instigation of Fredericks, and Rick and Bunny Sommers of Sommertime Dairy.

The Fredericks had carefully planned their 1998 expansion. When they moved to the new facility they noted a decrease in milk production. 'It went downhill so fast it made our heads spin,' Bernard Frederick said. In addition they are losing two or three cows every week-- seemingly healthy cows that suddenly lose weight and die.

The Fredericks and some of the experts they have consulted believe there is some kind of electron force impacting these cows.

At the Highland Dairy, cows are not drinking water as they normally do. Experiments were set up in the barn to test the electric currents going through the cows when they drank water. The needle on the meter showed a current of 0.5 to 1.5 milliamp each time a cow drank from the water trough.

'Cows are wonderful creatures,' says Rick Sommers,' but they need to relax in order to produce milk.'

December 28, 2005

Kids playing

Kids are asleep after a day of playing in the snow. More snow on its way tonight-- wind out of the northeast.


I got inspired by Kate to prepare Choucroute for lunch today. The key is mild sauerkraut. It might help to rinse it.

The first time I had this dish was in a restaurant in Alsace-Lorraine, and the second time, in Lausanne. The second time was in a very smoky place that looked like it had been in business since 1910. It probably had. The waitress came out with a huge platter of sauerkraut loaded with meats and explained that this was what I had ordered, but that she would be bringing it out in two servings. In heaven they will be serving this dish.


We had a Green Christmas this year in southern Sweden. But now we are into our second snowstorm and there is nothing but snow in the forecast for days on end. Perfect timing for kids on Christmas vacation. I have a thing for shoveling the driveway and have done so five times now. All the snow goes onto Fredrik's snow fort in the corner of the driveway.

December 27, 2005

Love and happiness

Love and happiness
You be good to me
I'll be good to you
we'll be together
we'll see each other
walk away with victory

oh baby,
love and happiness...
love and happiness...
Make you do right...
love'll make you do wrong...
make you come home early...
make you stay out all night long...
the power of love...

love is...
wait a minute...
love is...
walkin' together...
talkin' together...
say it again...
say it together...

And that of course is from Love and Happiness by the Reverend Al Green.

Green was born in Forrest City, Arkansas. The son of a sharecropper, he started out at age nine in a Forrest City quartet called the Greene Brothers; he dropped the final "e" from his last name years later as a solo artist. They toured extensively in the mid-1950s in the South until the Greenes moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when they began to tour around Michigan. He was kicked out of the group by his father because he was caught listening to Jackie Wilson.

On October 18, 1974, Green's girlfriend, Mary Woodson, poured boiling grits on him as he was showering, causing second-degree burns on his back, stomach and arm. She then killed herself in an adjacent bedroom. Deeply shaken by the event, Green converted to Christianity and became an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis in 1976. He then concentrated his energies towards pastoring his church and gospel singing, also appearing in 1982 with Patti Labelle in the musical Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.

You can go here to try to win a free copy of The Immortal Soul of Al Green

From Publisher's Weekly's review of Al's Autobiography Take Me To The River: Labeled by many as the Last Great Soul Man, Green writes modestly and with great spirit about his career. The bulk of the narrative, written with Seay, concentrates on Green's early life, from his boyhood as a sharecropper's son in Jacknash, Ark., to his family's move to the ghetto in Grand Rapids, Mich., to his desperate pursuit of a singing career. While Green quickly established himself as a neighborhood tough and ladies' man, he never let his reputation as a "badass dude" keep him from singing in the school and church choirs. Choosing between the secular and the sacred proved a constant struggle for Green. In the end, he writes, "I never did develop a preference for one church over the other. To me, shouting at the top of your lungs while hammering on a tambourine or whispering your prayers as the organ softly played were just two different ways of saying the same thing: We're all down here, Lord, doing the best we can." At 29, Green was already an international superstar when he again questioned his path. Ultimately, he opted to "leave behind the glitter and the glamour of the world to seek out a poor and plain existence," buying a church of his own on the outskirts of Memphis and earning a degree as an ordained minister.

I can't tell you of all the happiness Al Green's music has given me through the years, but my deep heartfelt thanks to my brother Lowell for putting on Al Green when we were driving around in his squished grasshopper green Ford Galaxy 500 in the 70s, and to Tim and Kate for giving me a copy of his greatest hits album after their wedding. This is the greatest album of all time.

December 26, 2005


Having discovered that I share my birthday with Nostradamus, it is only fitting that I make a list of predictions for 2006.
1. Rapid climate change. First the Atlantic circulation will stop (including the Labrador current), giving northern Europe the climate of its latitudinal siblings, northern Kamchatka and the Yukon. The severe cold will be short-lived. By 2016 global warming will gain the upper hand at all latitudes, resulting in a world virtually without seasons and inexpensive shipping from Europe to Asia via the ice-free northwest passage. Polar bears, whose livelihood depends on pack ice, will be in a tight spot.
2. The German and Japanese economies won't be stopped. The US economy will be trapped in the twin spider holes of balloonning boomer entitlement programs and tax cuts for the wealthy.
3. Front page political scandals: Cheney out-Agnews Spiro and W out-tricks Dick!
4. Long-awaited big-screen comeback of Pee Wee Herman. Director takes advantage of the pristine beauty of New Zealand.
5. The taste of blueberries will not lose its magical ability to transport me to the north country.
6. Price of oil up, biodiesel and ethanol production up, price of gold up up up.
7. The mullet makes a comeback, but not on my head.
8. A dramatic chain of scientific discoveries will link consumption of sauerkraut and bratwurst with longevity and the ability to solve word problems.
9. The Royal Shakespeare Company will perform all of the bard's works in a single season.
10. Blueberry wine.

December 22, 2005

The north pole

When we first moved to Sweden I didn't know the language very well, but that didn't stop me from reading the weather report every day. I thought it was an interesting feature that they were reporting the weather on the north pole. I remember saying to people, making conversation, 'Its really warm at the North Pole today, I read it in the paper.' After many years I realized that the paper was printing the forecast for northern Poland ('Norra Polen'), and not the North Pole ('Nord Polen').

Today's weather forecast in Sydsvenska Dagbladet, and today's weather at the North Pole.

I have discovered that Danes have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to Santa Claus-- don't you or anyone else try to say he lives anywhere except Greenland. The Finns believe, to the cores of their souls, that Mr. Kringle lives in northern Finland, and the Swedes believe he lives in the far north of Sweden. So, at the Christmas party the other day one of the Danes throws me the baited hook and asks where Santa Claus lives. It was a dare, and fortified by Gammel Dansk, I was daring: I repled that since he can't live at the geographic north pole due to shifting pack ice, he lives at the magnetic north pole, in the wilds of northern Canada.

December 18, 2005

The December Club

I have always felt a special bond with people born in December, since that's when my birthday is, too. (This special bond I feel even extends to December events, like the first flight of the Wright brothers (December 17) and Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7.) If I had been born into the fair sex, the majority sex, they tell me I would have been named Holly, for December's flower.

Happy birthday to my December friends:
Jane Hill Hatton
Niels Wessel Larsen
Timothy E. McGuire

Other December Birthdays:
Real Live Preacher
Charles Ringling
Samuel L. Jackson
Nostradamus (same day as me!)
Rod Serling
Humphrey Bogart
Isaac Newton


Trip to Oslo, the heart of darkness.

Just returned from a visit to Oslo. Highlights:

Bonded with the taxi driver who picked me up at the hotel. Turns out he likes fishing too. He pulled a notebook out of the glove box of the car and showed me the sketches he makes of flies he is planning to tie. He ties wet flies and fishes for salmon in the sea. He said his wife threw him out and that was good because it had given him more time to fish. (Here, a strong curse is to tell someone to 'go away to the woods!'). While the US is not fashionable among the PC elite here, its definitely more the rule than the exception that people light up when they hear you're from Minnesota (some have visited, and almost everyone has an aunt, uncle or cousin there.) I got to tell him where I was from because after hearing my impression of Norwegian (heavily influenced by Swedish and Danish) he asked me if I was from Iceland. It's strange, Danes and Swedes have also asked me that-- I apparently speak in muffled tones using out of the way scandinavian words, just like the Icelanders, plus I have a soft spot for Bobby Fischer.

Had dinner at the only restaurant in Norway that is listed in the Michelin guide (two stars). Good food! Truffles, duck, enthusiastic service. At one point we were served an eye-opening sorbet made from an obscure tropical citrus fruit, to cleanse the palate. It did the trick.

For those of you who are following the obscurata of Long Burn, yes, I had just been knocked flat by the stomach flu before leaving on this trip. Thankfully my stomach was back on its feet for the journey. The viruses, having had their way with the upper and lower intestines, moved on to the bronchii and trachea. Anyway, by focusing my chi, I was sometimes able to do a halfway decent impression of a healthy human.

The reason I was in Oslo was to serve as the opponent for the public defense of a PhD thesis. The Norwegians have a little ceremonial procession at the beginning of the defense. So, we were waiting in a little room behind the auditorium making small talk, me, the candidate, the chairman, the second opponent and the department administrator. The strangest feeling came over me when the chairman said that he had had to borrow a sportscoat for the ceremony: there were no old guys around, just us guys. The University is resting on our shoulders.

At the dinner after the defense I sat next to the candidate's parents who were pleased because last summer the candidate had announced that he knew where the fish were, and they took the boat out to a new place they had never fished before, and threw in their lines and immediately caught two big cod.

December 14, 2005

Green pastures and quiet waters

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the
presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and love will follow
me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

(23d Psalm, NIV Bible)

December 13, 2005

Status report

Nuclear family ambushed by stomach virus late last night.
Have not started to even think about Christmas cards.
Christmas shopping?
Have not put up Christmas lights.
Will go to Oslo day after tomorrow to give a lecture I haven't written.
Need to read 20 15 to 25 page essays by tomorrow.
Anybody mind if we take the season off?

December 12, 2005

Thespian days

Welcome Janie K! Here's the lowdown. I played a madman named Renfield who kept his pet flies in a jar. At one point in the play Renfield eats his pets. (They were only stage flies.) Who remembers the name of the play?

December 09, 2005

Christmas gifts

I remember having a hard time getting used to Junior High School after K - 6 in the stimulating environment of Lincoln Elementary. Listening to the music of 1979 (REO Speedwagon, Air Supply, Supertramp, My Sharona, the first album by The Police) can tie my intestines in a noose, just like yesterday. I auditioned for a part in a play in those dark days and ended up making a good friend, and because this all happened so long ago I will call this friend B.C. Now B.C. writes asking for help. And I am going to make an appeal directly to you, the readers of Long Burn, on his behalf. The question is perennial: What makes a good gift?

The absolute best Christmas gift of all time came along at about that time from my older brother Lowell: a soldering iron. How did he know I wanted one? I didn't even know it myself until I thought of the possibilities: burning patterns in wood and leather, building circuits, the refreshing smell of solder rosin. I bought some circuit kits from Radio Shack and made a little device with LED lamps that went up and down according to the volume of music in different bands. I took apart the family telephone and figured out how to run an extension line to my room in the basement. I hand-wired a mail-order-surplus keyboard into my Timex ZX-80 computer, and put together a mail-order robot (The robot had about 10 pounds of batteries and you could press contact switches to make it go forward or backward or turn). I even soldered together some sculptures out of copper wire: a globe and a bonsai tree.

Just so you know, here is this year's Christmas list (short version):

High quality prints of scientific motifs that are artistic, e.g. clouds of Jupiter or a single cell or highly magnified grains of pollen or a fly's eye
Bob Dylan in the 60s
David Bowie in the 70s
The Oxford English Dictionary (CD or paper)
Good books

So, its no longer 1979 and all those circuits I built when I was a PhD student took some of the adventure out of soldering irons and so the question remains-- what makes a good Christmas gift? What is the best gift you have received? Have any great gift ideas?? Please post a comment!

Letter to the Editor

Here is a draft of my letter to the editor:

Comment on article by Rasmus Thirup Beck, Danish Elite Research Pales and on the report by Dansk Industri comparing the Danish 'Superuniveristy' (Danish Technical University/DTU + Ris? + Copenhagen Business School) with MIT.

Like Dansk Industri, we think it is extremely constructive to compare the current state of Danish higher education with institutions abroad. According to a popular ranking system MIT is the fifth best university in the world, while DTU is somewhere between 153 and 202. A more 'even' comparison is between the University of Copenhagen and its American sisters: Carnegie Mellon University (54), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (55) and the University of Florida, tied with the Universities of Copenhagen and Zurich at 57.

We know that the University of Copenhagen can do better, but every day we see how our institution is held back by the conditions under which it is forced to exist. There are many reasons why we believe these institutions have the competitive edge on our own. The most important is that they are self-owned, and have the capacity to design and execute independent long-term strategic plans. An integral point is that these institutions have significant financial resources. The richest of the three is the public university in North Carolina, with an endowment of $ 1.6 billion. Carnegie Mellon (private) has $ 600 million, and the University of Florida $ 500 million. In addition their income is diversified—roughly half comes from local, state and federal grants for research and education. The remaining income comes from several things including publishing and investment income, and on average, only 10 % of the income of American public universities comes from student fees. The universities are strong financially because of this diversity—if for example the federal government cuts its funding for education, the university could react in the short term by drawing slightly more money out of its capital reserve and in the long term by planning carefully about how to adjust its resources.

This is in sharp contrast to the current state of Danish Universities. Through most of their history the Danish universities owned a significant amount of land, like their American sisters. In the past generation however the Danish state has assumed ownership of the university property and buildings and is now starting to charge them rent for occupying buildings that were originally built by the state for the people, as an investment in the future. In addition, the Danish government is not a reliable funding source to the Universities, and since we do not have a diversified source of income we are only that much more vulnerable. One example is our own institution which in mid-October learned of a 6% cut in our salary budget for 2006, and in mid-November of an additional 2.5% cut. It is obvious that long-term strategic planning is impossible under these circumstances. On top of these cuts to our institutional budget there is an additional budget shortfall at the faculty which is scrambling to find any 'extra' money it can in order to pay rent to the government. The Department of Chemistry is in desperate need of strategic long term planning. 17 of the 40 scientific staff are 60 or older and it is therefore a special opportunity to build a department that will last for at least another generation. Instead of taking on this important challenge, we are busy figuring out how minimize layoffs. We are not the only Institution with this age profile or need for strategic thinking.

We have absolutely nothing against competing in the global marketplace or with using market forces (like rent) to influence decision making at the university. However a problem arises because we have not been given the tools we need in order to compete well. We do not have the freedom (in contrast to the American universities) to sell an old building in a good location and use the interest on the capital to pay rent somewhere else, or to build a parking structure or a stadium to generate income. We are victimized again and again by short-term financial crises. There is a huge gap between the encouraging political messages we have heard from the government since they came to power, and the day-to-day reality at the university. It is easy enough to establish a fund for bio, nano and information technology. The problem is that these are only 3 of about 50 interesting and competitive fields of research at the university. The targeted research programs that have been created only pay the marginal cost for high status projects. This sort of program is not an investment in the day to day resources (including human and physical infrastructure) that are needed to produce the next generation of Danish technical experts.

We call on the government to either show genuine leadership, or to give the universities the freedom and resources needed to do the job themselves.

Yours, the undersigned.

December 06, 2005


I have just returned from a short trip to the Technical Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland (wonderful place, gracious hosts, good food, great scenery). After getting oriented I found myself having lunch with two Swiss gentlemen bearing strong resemblances to Inspector Cluseau and Walter Mathau respectively.

Inspector Cluseau tells his students to shape up or they will find themselves working as coolies for the Chinese. Then he started kvetching about India and the Indian's refusal to accept limits on the use of fossil fuel, saying that they have the same right to use it to develop their economies as the West. And imagine the state of the world environment if everyone in China had a car and a refrigerator?

Here's what I think: People here live a good life growing grapes on the sunny shore of Lake Geneva. They do not need economic development. China and India need economic development because of basic driving forces like malnutrition and dismal public health. Why should we deny them that, or feel threatened?

Walter Mathau (think Grumpy Old Men, not The Odd Couple) has developed a method for diagnosing cancerous bladders and for determining air quality using quantum cascade lasers.

Lausanne is in the French-speaking protestant Cavinist region of Switzerland. The hotel has polished marble floors, glass elevators and a Japanese garden in the inner courtyard. When I checked out the lady at the desk said, 'Did zjou have any drinks from zee mini bar?' 'Non.' I replied. It feels great to be called 'monsieur' and hear 'merci', 'bon jour', 'bon appetit' and 'bon soir.' Disorienting that this could be a hotel anywhere, in Duluth say, and be exactly the same except for the accents.

Walter Mathau had made a model for air pollution in the Alps. He thought it wasn't good enough, that the spatial resolution should be increased. 'At a 17 km grid size,' he said, 'the Matterhorn looks like the Great Plains!'

The train to the airport in Geneva goes past the World Meteorological Organization where they have written this fine document about global warming. This is only one of the many UN organizations found in Geneva. Its of course fun to travel and learn these things since my early education concerning Switzerland was limited to watching commercials for Swiss Miss Instant Cacao on TV. The Swiss think about global warming in terms of melting glaciers. At one point Cluseau proclaimed, 'Switzerland is Europe's watertower!'

Lausanne is home to the Picard family of adventurers, for example the first to visit the stratosphere and the Marianis Trench were Picards. The contemporary (third) generation Picard went around the world in a hot air balloon. He is now working on a solar-powered airplane.

I didn't have time to look for souviniers until I got to the airport, and then it was too late to get a Swiss Army Knife because I wouldn't have been able to take it onto the plane. However, the airline was kind enough to serve me a Swiss Army Lunch, complete with folding plastic knife and spork.

Peter Sellers

Just ran across these quotes from Peter Sellers:

"I writhe when I see myself on the screen. I'm such a dreadfully clumsy hulking image. I say to myself, 'Why doesn't he get off? Why doesn't he get off?' I mean, I look like such an idiot. Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company. I must stop thinking about it, otherwise I shan't be able to go on working."

"There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed."

"Conversation like television set on honeymoon...unnecessary."

"Finally, in conclusion, let me say just this."'

December 02, 2005

In every way superior

Themselves they consider in every way superior to everyone else in the world, and allow other nations a share of good qualities decreasing according to distance, the furthest off being in their view the worst.

Descriptions of the Persians by the Greek historian Herodotus, 5th century BC.

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