April 29, 2007

They were there all along.

Not long agew I wrote about how English is taking over the world, and gave an example of French Professors at an elite school in Paris teaching their French students using English. I asked, where is Monty Python when you need them? Now thanks to You Tube I know that they were there all along.

I found the clip by accident, thanks to Mellow Velo's link to Python's 'Bicycle Repair Man'.

While you're there, check out Star Trek meets Monty Python.


From an article in today's New York Times:

The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences back before the Reformation, said Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group. Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins.

This whole game is badly in need of a modern Martin Luther, Mr. Hayes added.

There isn’t a single American household above the poverty line that couldn’t cut their CO2 at least 25 percent in six months through a straightforward series of fairly simple and terrifically cost-effective measures, said Charles Komanoff, an energy economist in New York.

And we aren't going to get ourselves off the hook using biofuels either. Biofuels are good news for farmers-- corn prices have tripled in the last three years. But there ain't enough land to grow enough corn to fill all the gas tanks, and it takes a lot of fuel to grow corn: energy to make fertilizer, fossil fuel for tractors and transportation. And what will we eat if we burn the crops?

April 28, 2007


I finished the bike renovation project today by mounting a child seat. Now I can zip around with our three-year-old on my spare bike, to market, to day care.

Here's a photo of the patio project. Almost done digging the hole. Next comes a groundcloth, then a layer of gravel and a layer of sand, another groundcloth, and then the bricks on top. Why two layers of groundcloth you ask? One answer is to keep out roots and ants. Another answer is that my Reader's Digest home improvement guide says to put it on top of the sand, while my Swedish guide says to put it below. So I decided to take the best of both cultures. I explained that to my wife and she said, The best of both cultures, is that like ketchup on meatballs?

Fallen nuts and trees

The congregation has a picture of who they want their minister to be, and the minister has a vision of the church. My father told me once that he had tried to make sure that the church was a place for the regular people in the community, farmers, families. Not long after we moved to a new town somebody in the congregation told my dad that he needed to get some new shoes, maybe some sharp black wingtips, to uphold the image. I guess some of you know my father and maybe some of his principles, equally applicable to shoes and life, comfort, durability, diligent maintenance, new shoes aren't high on the list. One of Dad's rituals was to take his shoe care box out of the bittle (this was our name for a cabinet by the back door) and carefully polish his shoes to get ready for Sunday services. He probably never threw out a pair of shoes but polished them and put on new laces, maybe glued a sole back on or took them down to Ubl's. I don't remember my dad ever buying shoes, just fixing them.

So, as my wife says, the nut doesn't fall far from the tree, and here are some shoes I've been maintaining for over a decade. I remember when I bought them I thought, it's going to take me a long time to wear through those soles. I've glued and clamped the soles a couple of times, cleaned and polished them many times, re-sewed them in a couple of places. But now the back half of the right sole has come off and I don't know if I can fix it. Been considering drilling a hole and sinking a short wood screw into the sole from the inside, but would it hold? Do I want to be standing on wood screws? I have been using these shoes for messing around in the yard and the current project, a 3 x 6 meter mortarless brick patio, involves a lot of digging. The shoes and the spade don't get along.

In the picture the shoes are sitting on a workbench I recovered from my wife's aunt's basement-- Dad helped me refinish it a few years ago.

April 27, 2007


We got our son a foosball table for his tenth birthday. I was up late the night before stringing foosmen onto the rods and screwing them in place. At first I had to hold myself back when we played so he could learn the game. I debated with myself about the ethics of doing this-- did I think he couldn't handle losing, or was I teaching him that life would always hand him easy victories? What kind of a father would beat his kid 10-0? I would do things like only play with my left hand or not touch my goalie. That lasted about a week. Now he whips his old man regularly.


Someone was recently Long Burn's ten thousandth visitor. Congratulations to the lucky bloggee.

April 16, 2007


Just finished a presentation for a new course I will be teaching next fall on scientific writing and presentation. The course will be required for all of our Master's Degree students and it may be picked up by the faculty. A summary:

English is taking over the world, and is the international language of science and business. Our students can't survive without knowing English at a high level, to write grant proposals for the EU, to make business reports and to write scientific papers.

The International Herald Tribune (10 April 2007):

English says it all: Linguists say they see no precedent for dominance.

Scholars say that one fourth of the world’s population can communicate in English. It is the common language in almost every endeavor, from science to air traffic control to the global jihad, where it is used between speakers of Arabic and other languages.

English is the language of the internet, and 80% of the world’s electronically stored information is in English.

The New York Times (11 April 2007):

In the last five years, the world’s top business schools and universities have been pushing to make English the teaching tongue in a strategy to raise revenues by attracting more international students and as a way to respond to globalization.

The École Normale Supérieure in Paris teaches all students Economics in English. (Where are Peter Sellers and Monty Python when you need them: French Professors teaching French students using English!)

Santiago Iñiguez de Ozoño, dean of the Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid, argues that the trend is a natural consequence of globalization, with English functioning as Latin did in the 13th century as the lingua franca most used by universities.

I told the students that they are forbidden to use the local pidgin, Danglish.


There's a bad flu running around. A tough and versatile variant, striking stomachs, eyes, throats, lungs and inner ears with abandon. A friend told me he felt so bad that if he had been a horse they would have shot him long ago. I told him that if he had been a horse they would have nailed his shoes onto his toenails, so at least he had that to be happy about.

April 14, 2007


My first bike was red and had a coaster brake. Dad got it for me from the Coast-To-Coast store one grey windy spring day. It said 'Stage Coach' on the chain guard. A little later I started to make it my own bike. First little things like mounting playing cards across the spokes with clothes pins, but then later I put on big handlebars and a banana seat with sissy bar. I wore the nuts on that bike round with a crescent wrench.

Once one of my brothers got a bike from the police auction. It made a big impression on me. My brother could do really cool things like put on a chain. He painted it black, it had no chain guard or fenders, and it was fast.

Later I moved up to a ten speed, an Itoh, also bought at the Coast-To-Coast. I mowed my parents' lawn for two summers to pay off that bike, and I had it for years-- through Jr. High and High School. I painted part of it John Deere Green one summer and rode around on a two-tone bike. Rode that bike on a few 50 km MS Bike-A-Thons. I rode it in college, and then took it out to Los Angeles with me to graduate school. I had it in the car on the drive out of MN, through SD, Montana, over the mountains and down the central valley to Pasadena, and after a month it was stolen. The cable was cut in broad daylight, and some white security guys told me they had seen some hispanics driving around in a pick-up. I kept looking for that John Deere Green lug frame for years, and went through several other bikes, one a nice Trek mountain bike, another a ten-speed racer with suicidally narrow tires. That bike had been abandoned in the storage room of our apartment building and I broke the Kryptonite lock using liquid nitrogen and a screwdriver in the lab, (my thesis advisor walked into the lab, declared 'I don't want to know!', and walked out again), fixed it up, made it my own. Had some good times riding the Trek in the San Gabriel Mountains. That bike got stolen during the night of the Northridge earthquake of 1994. I hadn't been so smart because I had locked the bike to a sturdy bush behind the apartment building. Somebody cut the bush with a dull knife and took my bike. They didn't get away clean though. There was blood on the cut branch, and bloody crumpled newspaper lying on the asphalt. The police showed up and took a report, but weren't interested in the DNA evidence.

After that I decided that I wasn't going to be a victim again and I started riding stealth bikes-- bikes that are in perfect mechanical condition but look like hell. That strategy has served me well-- in LA, in Copenhagen, in Sweden. The idea is that if you're going to go to the work of stealing a bike, you're going to take a good looking bike and skip over the beater with low resale value. Sometimes all it takes is an old seat and a rusty bell. I bought a new commuting bike in Copenhagen in 1998 and painted over the frame with porous grey primer. That bike avoided being stolen for several years, locked up by the harbor, not the best part of town.

When it got stolen I started riding an old Estonian bicycle I found in the basement of the electron storage ring. That bike was an adventure-- lots of flex in the frame (both twist and bow), narrow handlebars just in front of the knees, pedals tilting, no brakes. Somebody stole it-- served them right.

April 11, 2007


My other Easter project, besides rebuilding an old bike, was building a pergola. I bought the parts on the first day of vacation and lifted them onto a trailer and took them home, an act my back and shoulders are still griping about 10 days later. The overall plan is to build a stone piazza out back, a kind of mediterranean patio where you can eat olives and write with your right and left hands simultaneously.* Some friends sent us a postcard of St. Peter's Square in Vatican City that I am using for inspiration, and here's a cool picture of a fountain in a piazza in Rome. The pergola will create some shelter from the wind, and the bench is pointed to catch sunlight in the morning and provide shade in the afternoon.

Mom tells me that her grandpa Trochinski had a pergola in the back yard (they called it a grape arbor) where he grew grapes that he used to make wine. That's not so bad, wine in western Minnesota during the depression. Not to be outdone by my expatirate Prussian predecessor, we have planted a grapevine and two hop vines (humulus lupulus). Hops are famous not only for flavoring beer but also for growing really really fast, like half a foot a day and up to 10 yards in a season, so the pergola bench should be nice and shady come August, which is likely to be a warm one, since El Nino is in a bad mood this year.

*This reminded me of something our three-year-old said today. He declared that he had not a right hand and a left hand but a brave hand and a tool hand. We think he's a lefty-- that would be the tool hand.

April 08, 2007


I just put the final touches on my new/refurbished REX '3 x 2' speed from 1981. A little background: I was talking with our neighbor about going together to buy some sand and gravel so I could build a stone patio out back. They're planning something similar. Our neighbor pointed apologetically at the pile of junk in thier driveway and said that her husband was going to bring that stuff to the dump. Like it would matter to me, but then I spied a cool looking bike sitting on the pile. I have been thinking it would be good to have a spare bike for commuting to the station, and who can stand to see a perfectly good rusting broken bike go to waste? Not me. A few careful observations and the bike was mine. Here is a before picture:

REX has been making bikes, mopeds and motorcycles in Halmstad Sweden since 1896; it's a classic brand.

Here are the handlebars before, showing the 'Sachs Torpedo' three-speed shifter. My goal with the project was to make a fun and reliable bike for under $75. I repainted it using some Hammerite paint, and remounted the 'REX' logo on the front tube.

Welcome to my workshop by the way. It may be the smallest room in the house but its also the most productive. The bike is 26 years old but it doesn't look like its been used a lot-- the insides of the fenders are as shiny as a bathroom mirror, as are the front rims where the brakes grip. The bike was set up with an electrical system like a VW bug (positive ground). There was a battery pack on the post, a generator, and lights front and back. None of it worked though and the plastic was faded and cracked so it got tossed along with the handlebars and tires.

Here's a shot of the back hub for Tim. I bought a new 'rustproof' chain that feels like its teflon coated. There are two fixed gears in the back, AND its a three-speed sealed hub. Go figure?? Besides the chain I bought a new handlebar and seat, tires and tubes, lock and cable. The bike has 27" wheels, and strangely the local bike store doesn't carry 27" tires but our supermarket does. If it wasn't raining and late I would take the bike out for the inaugural ride.

April 06, 2007

Long Friday

Spring is here, is definitely here. Cherry trees and daffodils are blooming. We're all off from school and/or work, and had planned a few excursions before we got hit by a round of stomach flu and running noses. Running kids and running noses.

I saved an old bike the neighbors were going to throw out. The plan is to fix it up to have a spare commuting bike. It's a classic Swedish 'REX' three speed coaster brake except there are two gears on the back wheel, giving an option between speed and power. I'll post pictures.

Here's some photos I've had sitting around on my hard disk. On the left is John Tyndall the Irish natural philosopher. In the middle is me testing a new beard in front of the shower curtain. On the right is Isaac Newton's death mask. Back in Ike's day they would make a plaster cast of the departed's face. I like to show that picture to my students when we go through Newton's laws-- the hook for me is his resemblance to Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal.

April 01, 2007

Around the house

Our older son chose Star Wars as the theme of his 10th birthday party. Darth himself watched the proceedings from a countertop. I put the guests through Jedi training camp-- for example they had to hit a blinking whiffle ball with a light saber. My wife made an R2D2 cake.

That night our younger son insisted that his crab have his own bath.

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