Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

January 03, 2004

NASA rover touches down

Attended a NASA-sponsored event at the University of Arizona tonight celebrating the touchdown of the new Mars rover. The event started with talks by several of the scientists who are a part of the research mission, and ended with a live feed from mission headquarters as the spacecraft descended through the Martian atmosphere and landed.

There were many tense moments. There was a signal that the space craft had hit ground. However, for at least 10 minutes afterwards, there was no signal. This was no cause for worry, as the rover, covered with big airbags, was expected to roll around for many minutes before settling down enough to send off coherent signals.

When the signal finally came, the sober-faced people at the controls jumped up and down and celebrated. In the classroom here in Arizona, there was jubulation as well. Many of these people would have to do something else if the mission failed; there would be no data for them to evaluate.

Yesterday, a separate spacecraft went through the tail of a comet to collect a thimble-full of dust. It will be the first non-lunar extraterrestrial sample brought back to earth.

I talked to a scientist, Daunte Laurette, who is part of the comet mission and who will spend the next two years getting ready to analyze the samples. He was relieved. If the spacecraft had hit anything larger than a speck of dust as it went through the comet's tail, it would have been destroyed. Now that he knows things went well in the riskiest part of the mission, he knows he can go ahead with his plans. He has work! Of the 1000 specks of dust the mission was to collect, he will get to analyze ten. It will be two years before those ten specks of dust reach his laboratory.

I will log more about the evening tomorrow. I am exhausted; the crowd was overflow--at least a couple of hundred people sitting for three hours waiting for the main event. Crowds wear my nerves thin! Especially when clueless parents drag along their oblivious and justifiably restless children.

January 02, 2004

2004 Jay Buckley Baseball Tour schedule announced

Check out the new schedule at

Oh man. Twenty-four baseball tours to choose from. I am particularly tempted by the one which starts in Phoenix and works its way up the West Coast. What is wonderful about this tour is that you spend three days in San Francisco and three days in Seattle watching the Twins play the Mariners.

If you haven't heard me brag about my time this summer on the baseball bus, let me just say that the baseball tour was the best vacation I have ever taken. Great people. Well, baseball fans are always great people. The tour was well-organized and featured good leadership. We had a great crew.

All you have to do is jump on the bus. No worry about hotels, parking or tickets. It is truly a worry-free, fun-filled vacation--and baseball fans are great people. I think even the non-baseball-fan spouses had a good time.

The English language and two party systems

There is no law in this country which says we need only have two major political parties. It just happened. When a party like the Whigs dies, a party like the Republican takes its place.

Oddly, the same holds true for all English-speaking countries that I can think of. England, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have historically had two predominant parties.

Non-English speaking countries, meanwhile, almost never limit themselves to two major parties. Italy has dozens of roughly equal stature. Sweden, I believe, has five. Poland had, at least a few years ago, well over 100. In one election in Poland, the party which "won" received 7% of the vote.

Multiple parties confuse things. A party can get the most votes in an election, but its leadership still has to go out and find other parties to combine with in order to form a governing majority. Such coalitions are shaky, and can fall apart at a moment's notice.

Nobody that I know of has been able to figure out why English speaking countries quickly drift towards a two party system and stay there. Any theories?

Agricultural subsidies under fire

With farmers making up less than 2% of the electorate, it shouldn't be a surprise that ag subsidies are endangered. The sugar program is of particular interest to those of us who depend upon the Red River Valley economy.

Right-wingers see ag subsidies as socialism; left-wingers see the poor farmers of nations to the south deprived of our lucrative market, and not just in sugar. Free-traders (who can be either left or right wing, it seems) are certainly not in favor of tariffs and subsidies.

The argument for subsidies is pretty strong,especially within the government bureaucracy. The government wants food prices to be stable and low. Why? Food prices are a large component of the cost-of-living index, which governs increases in military, welfare and social security spending. If food prices were to suddenly go up, the government could go broke. And once you give cost-of-living increases--you sure can't take them away when food prices go down again.

It is likely for that reason that the Bush White House, which is supposedly conservative, has handed out more money to farmers than any other administration in history.

Although advocates of sugar tariffs are panicking at the thought of cheap sugar coming in from South and Central America, I have heard others say that it is more likely that sugar beet farming would survive, but that prices wouldn't be so stable. There would be very, very good years and very, very lean years--much like in potato farming. The big boys would survive. Those with a heavy debt load would not.

I was in New Zealand when they suddenly cut out all farm subsidies there. Farmers were thrown on the street. I met one in particular who was distraught, had lost his wife, his land, his living, and was working part time as a janitor.

However, after a three-year shakedown, New Zealand agriculture recovered. Prices eventually leveled off at near subsidized levels. American free marketers still point to the New Zealand example when they argue for cutting off all subsidies. They didn't see the human cost, however.

No such radical change will happen here. New Zealand is a small country with a parliamentary system of government. That means the prime minister always has a majority in the parliament. He or she is able to implement the party programme in its entirety. Radical swings in policy are common in two-party parliamentary situations. Here, we plod along, compromising, compromising, compromising.

Ted Williams

Spent the early afternoon reading a biography of Ted Williams entitled Hitter by Ed Linn. The prose is old style--a bit inflated and flowery. Linn was a reporter who covered Williams' entire career, one of the rare writers who Williams tolerated.

Some tidbits:

Williams' father was a drunk, and his mother was devoted to the Salvation Army at the expense of her children. When Williams played minor league ball in San Diego, his hometown, his mother spent the game in the stands using her stature as his mother to shake down the crowd for donations. She was a constant embarrassment to her boy Ted.

Williams was an atrocious fielder, mainly because he didn't pay attention. He argued with the fans in the stands, sometimes allowing harmless fly balls to drop simply because he was facing the wrong way when the pitch was delivered. He was such a good hitter that his teamates and managers put up with his antics on the field, antics which included sitting cross-legged on the ground when the action got too slow.

Williams had perfect vision. He could read the title on a record which was playing at 78 rpm. Try that sometime, if any of you still have a record player. I can't read the title at 32 rpm.

Williams could see the ball so well that he could point to the spot on the ball where the bat hit. Teamates would test him on this by giving him a bat covered with black tar. Williams would hit the ball and identify the spot on a clean ball before seeing the ball with the black spot.

Baseball writers hated Williams so badly that they wouldn't vote him the MVP award even in years when he led the league in every offensive category. He did win twice, but should have won the award five times. Red Sox writers wouldn't even list him in their top ten.

Williams lost five years to service in the Second World War and the Korean War. During one of those tours of duty, he flew on the same plane as John Glenn. If Williams had played those five years, he would likely have broken most of the records held by Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

Unlike DiMaggio, who was aloof and elitist, Williams picked his best friends from off the street--cops who stopped him, ticket takers at the ballpark and the like. Williams often took groups of children from the ballpark to a theme park after the game and bought them all rides and hot dogs. The media never reported those trips. They weren't invited.

Williams had the same opinion of pitchers as catchers Fisk, Bench and Berra, quoted below: They're completely stupid.

January 01, 2004

Lotto fever

The Powerball jackpot has climbed to 200-plus million dollars, so the convenience stores are selling a lot of tickets. Meanwhile, there was a little news story about the man who won $300 million last year at this time. Seems his life has become something of a nightmare as he has been beseiged by requests from charities and people in financial difficulty. His daughter has lost all her friends.

The coach of the Washington Redskins, Steve Spurrier, walked away from the $15 million remaining on his contract in order to escape working for a miserable boss. Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, the richest pro athlete, is trapped on a last place team. No other team wants him, despite the fact he is a great player, and the player's union won't let him renegotiate the contract downwards so he can play for a winning team. Poor little rich boy!

Unearned wealth is a curse! The lesson is taught countless times, yet it seldom hits home. We all want it. Nobody would turn it down. But the people who can actually handle a windfall free money are few and far between.

Inheritance is unearned wealth as well, and a curse. It can ruin families even before it is bequeathed, as family members squabble to win the favor of somebody they seem to want dead. I sometimes think I agree with billionaire Warren Buffett, who advocates a 100% inheritance tax--not so much to raise revenue for the government, but to avoid despoiling the character of the inheritors.

December 31, 2003

Service with a hop at the IHOP

Just went for supper at the International House of Pancakes across the street. I avoid the place because I don't think their pancakes are all that good. But I do remember two years ago eating there and being amused by the waiters and waitresses. One waiter in particular had the whole place in stitches with his antics. He teased customers, bantered with the cooks, and carried on in such a manner that I think the whole place was watching him do his job just to see what he would come up with next.

Went to the same IHOP tonight, and found the same atmosphere, although the clown-waiter was absent. The servers who were there were spontaneous, joking, kind, human. No phony stuff. The cooks in the kitchen and the servers were polite and kind to each other (at some restaurants, they seem almost at war). Even the youngest employees were completely at ease.

The hostess sneezed up front, and about four different employees yelled "Bless you!" from various places in the restaurant.

The fun atmosphere was clearly due to good management, an attitude from the top that has permeated down. No fear, no strife, no bitterness. I commented to the cashier that the restaurant seemed like a great place to work, and she smiled big and said, "Oh yeah!"

How rare for management to create an atmosphere where everybody feels free to let their personalities flow. It is an art. Good intentions alone won't do it. Just being a nice person won't do it.

So, I am led to philosophize: what characteristics in a manager create a happy work atmosphere?

First, competence. If things aren't done right--ordering, hiring, training, and so on, little irritations build up in the minds of the employees as it becomes evident that they could do many of the things better themselves.

Second, trust. The manager has to believe that the employees want to do right and do well. A manager who suspects his employees are going to try to get by with things has poisoned the well. When an employee does try to get by with something, the remedy must be swift and certain. You showed up late twice, boom, you're gone. That shows that management notices those who do show up on time.

Third, acceptance of mistakes. Mistakes are okay, and are inevitable. It is how you recover from them that makes the difference. Employees must know that they have a big reservoir of forgiveness for mistakes, and must be encouraged to make decisions on the spot without fear of retribution. Otherwise, they freeze up.

I am preaching to myself. I am trying to learn all of these things for my own benefit. Managing people is a challenge, and it does not come naturally.

However, it is so important! Work is a huge part of people's lives. Miserable, frustrating work situations make more people miserable than just one worker--the misery can spread into their families as well. The art of creating a happy workplace is, I would think, vital to the general well-being, and I love to watch it when it happens.

New Year's resolutions

To big odometer will turn to 2004 at midnight. Whoopee. I plan to be in bed, safe from drunken drivers and falling bullets. Yes, there seems to be some problem with gunshots fired in the air at New Year's here in Tucson. They announced stiff penalties for such behavior on the news last night, and told of the last person hurt by a falling bullet which came through her roof. I will be safe here as there are two stories of concrete above me.

As for resolutions, aren't they in the same category as Santa Claus? In any case, I don't believe in them. I have no desire to quit coffee. I have no desire to start getting up at six a.m. Exercise? I'll do it if I feel like it. Same with reading, writing, and other virtuous activities. They carry their own reward. When I do them, I feel good, when I don't, I get over it.

Nonetheless, here are some ideas for myself for the coming year. I will call them:

Salubrious Suggestions

--Turn the Twins game off if it makes you angry.
--Depend less upon the Schwan man for your nutritional needs.
--Join no clubs, organizations or groups whatsoever.
--Go to Itasca park at least once. Eat at Douglas Lodge.
--Ignore the election completely. Militantly.
--Take at least one canoe ride.
--Take more photos of people you know.
--Learn one new piano piece.
--Memorize one good poem.
--Read one Shakespeare play.
--Read one classic novel.
--Plant at least one tree in a place where it can live forever.
--Drive the back roads to town at least two or three times.
--Jump in a lake once this summer.
--Play catch with a baseball or frisbee at least once.
--Stay up all night once, for whatever reason.
--Don't settle for bad coffee.
--Drive slow and stop often.
--Throw at least one party for some reason, any reason.
--Attend at least one movie.
--Try to relax and enjoy June.
--Write with a lit candle next to the computer more often.
--Get one professional massage.
--Make sure the Scrabble board doesn't get dusty.
--Get up before sunrise at least once this summer.
--Clear some brush somewhere, perhaps to make a trail.
--Save an entire October Sunday for fall colors.
--Hit at least three church suppers.

December 30, 2003

Some perspective on our place in the universe

My goal while star viewing Saturday night was to learn to locate the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest galactic neighbor. I practiced finding it for over two hours, so I should have it down now.

Telescopes, because they see such a small part of the sky, are of little use in looking at Andromeda. The galaxy stretches across four moon widths in our view. The problem is everything but the intensely-lit core of the galaxy is too dim to see with the naked eye. With binoculars on a dark night, however, the whole thing becomes much more clear.

It was quite a feeling to see that neighboring galaxy not as a faint speck in the distance, but as a well-defined green blur spread across a large part of our sky. I got the the feeling I was looking out a window of our galaxy towards the neighbor's back yard. It was tough to imagine that the light that I saw from that galaxy Saturday night took 2.3 million years to arrive in Tucson.

To give some perspective: If each galaxy were about the size of a quarter, the galaxies would be spread about one foot apart. The known universe, which contains at least 150 billion galaxies, would spread about two miles in every direction.

Hitler and cigarettes

The other day at Barnes and Noble, I read parts of a book of transcripts of Hitler's dinner conversations during the war. The conversations were one-sided, almost monologues, as you might imagine. Hitler expanded on many subjects, including art, food, history and astronomy.

Hitler was adamantly opposed to smoking. He didn't allow it in his presence. He listed those he knew who were killed by smoking, including his father. He chided those at the table who smoked, saying "You're next!"

One of the peculiarities of World War II to the modern observer might be the fact that cigarette rations were considered vital to the morale of the troops. When I researched old local North Dakota newspapers from the war era, I was surprised to see that schoolchildren put on cigarette drives for the troops.

Apparently, the enemy had the same idea. Hitler said he thought it was crazy that his generals found cigarettes so important for the troops. He knew the soldiers were hooked, so he didn't plan to deprive them of their tobacco, at least for the rest of this war. But next war...

Hitler didn't drink, smoke, or eat meat. He was defeated by Churchill, who did all three as often as possible, and Roosevelt, who smoked himself to an early grave. Is there a broad lesson here? Probably not, except for that the purity of a leader's personal habits are no guarantor of his public virtue.

December 29, 2003

Vikings aftermath

People are writing of heartbreak in Vikingsland after their last second loss yesterday. My heart remains intact. I went to the game, yes, but I am not much of a fan. I put the loss out of my mind immediately after the fact. This is not baseball, after all!

I wore my Twins cap yesterday. I don't own a Vikings cap. There were many Twins caps in the stands. There were also some UND jackets. So, when Jim Kleinsasser, a UND alum, caught a pass for a big gain, I yelled, "Go Sioux!" Sure enough, three guys six rows down jerked their heads around and cheered. Who else but a UND alum would understand that "Go Sioux" didn't mean I was rooting for one of the cheerleaders?

But what a difference between attending a baseball game, where the fans are generally genteel, and a football game, where they are just plain crude. I don't care if I ever attend a football game again. You can't see much. Televised football is far better. And I am too old to enjoy the juvenile camaraderie.

If nothing else, the end of the Vikings season means it can't be long before the pitchers report to spring training.

Frozen pipes in Tucson

Last night, Tucson hit a low of 19 degrees, which was lower than the low temperature in Chicago, Boston and Anchorage. So, all kinds of advice on the radio today about how to prevent frozen pipes. Apparently there was quite a little trouble last night.

I thought it felt pretty cold at the Vikings game yesterday. I had no idea. No wonder my sinuses are a little funny today. In the sun it can get up to 65 during the day, but as soon as you move into the shade, look out.

December 28, 2003

Vikings game

Spent the day driving to and from Tempe, AZ, where I watched the Vikings. The more complete account is posted as a column to the left. I did not exaggerate. Well, you know I never do. But I was really not exaggerating this time.