Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

February 09, 2007

Hectic day at the office

The hotel staff were a little harried today. For one thing, I kept coming to get my keys remagnetized because they wouldn't open the lock. The little light just went red, not green. Finally, near the end of the afternoon, the girl decided to see if the lock was still working. Even her master key wouldn't open the door unless you slid the key card in and out about a dozen times, and even then it was clear that the lock was barely opening.

Oh, she figured, the batteries in the lock must be low. ""l'll get a work order in and they'll fix it first thing Monday morning," she said cheerfully.


How was I to get into the room in the mean-time, given the fact that today is Friday?

Well, she answered, do you want us to get you a new room? No, I said, I would prefer to be able to get into the one I have.

Finally, the manager appeared behind the desk and said Andrew, bless his soul, was coming at 4 and he could replace the batteries. Andrew came on schedule and after about 25 minutes of searching for the right allen wrench, he replaced the batteries.

But--when the batteries are replaced, the whole system has to be reset. So then it was to find the portable computer which resets the lock, and then it is to find the right cords and connectors for the portable computer, and then it is to find the right programming information.

In the middle of all this, a man appeared at the desk with an entirely different problem. He had his alarm clock in his hand. "This is the third one that didn't go off!" he said, implying that he had been late for work due to a series of faulty alarm clocks. He was good natured. By now, we were all laughing.

The manager said she knew that clock worked, she had tested it herself, and to prove it, she set the alarm at 4:30 and the clock at 4:29 and we waited for the thing to go off, which it did, real loudly. "How did you do that?" the man said, admitting that "I may be good lookin' but I don't have much for brains."

Trouble was, to give the alarm clock back to the man, it had to be unplugged, which meant that the manager could not set it for him in the office. In the end, she agreed to go up to 317, plug the clock in, and set the alarm. Now, that's service. And it didn't wait until Monday morning.

But first, the manager had to struggle to for fifteen minutes to reset my lock. Poor girl. Andrew wasn't much help. And the original girl who so kindly offered to fill out a work order had disappeared on break.

Glad I'm on vacation.

Lhasa-Beijing line

Here's an interesting article about the new rail line from China to Tibet. The admiring tone in the article towards the Chinese government's commitment to infrastructure is a little sugary for me, although there is no doubting the ability of the Chinese to conquer monumental engineering challenges.

China, cont.

Ran across an article about China by the Hoover Institution think tank, which leans pretty far right, which caught my eye because it questions a basic premise upon which our foreign policy towards many nations is based: free markets breed free political institutions.

The argument runs that sure, when we do business with tyrants, we aid them--but really, in the long term, we are undermining them because as the people become more prosperous due to free markets, they will demand greater political freedom.

That belief is naive, and it doesn't account for the Chinese government's adept ability to use free market prosperity to hold onto their own power. Now, they might lose power in the end, but there certainly is no sign of it happening now. As markets flourish in China, press freedoms and human rights have declined.

In fact, the government is allied with business. It wants the people to be prosperous so that it can argue that the stability which an authoritarian state provides is best for free enterprise. Their argument may convince many Chinese.

The People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, is no drab Soviet-era Pravda It contains some light journalism in with the propaganda. But in one article, it frankly objected to the United States' insistence upon human rights. It took me a while to realize, and I think this is true, that the phrase "human rights" is now interpreted in China to mean "interference by the West." Thus the People's Daily could mention the phrase freely knowing that most people will recognize the term as a code-word for interference by the West in China's internal affairs.

In my 10 short days in China, I saw nothing to bolster the notion that free markets will inevitably bring about free institutions. Press freedoms are being curbed. The government is skilled at its one main goal: staying in power. It will use free markets to bolster itself, but if things show signs of getting out of control, it will crack the whip good and hard.

Should we have human rights as a goal in our foreign policy and trade policies? To the extent that we should do no harm, I think the answer is yes. That is, rather than preaching human rights out loud to the Chinese leaders, which will only bring resistance, we should at the very least enter no trade or political agreements which would assist them repressing their population.

Right now, I don't know that we are even doing that much. Our blind faith in free markets bringing about democracy has given American business the blessing to enter into agreements with the Chinese government which actually directly hurt Chinese dissidents. Google, for example, after being widely criticized for turning over the names of people who said negative things about the Chinese government in one of their chat rooms, now claims they regret selling their soul to the devil.

Seeing the plight of Chinese laborers and women--as well as hearing stories from a censored journalist--makes me think we need to stand by their side. But it should be done carefully. Symbols are powerful in China. Our foreign policy should, at the very least, be formed by people who understand China's culture and can assess when and how we push the few buttons at our disposal to bring about positive change for the Chinese people.

Just an example: When Mao decided he wanted to enter talks with the United States, how did he signal his intentions? He put an American journalist beside him on the reviewing stand at a huge parade. He assumed that American intelligence would understand that this was a direct signal that his attitude towards the United States was softening.

Of course, that one sailed right over our heads.

February 07, 2007

Random thoughts

Another perfect day in Arizona.

On my way south to Casa Grande, I came across a terrific accident. A semi with two trailers had rolled. It was in a pile on the side of the road. The cab was obliterated, underneath the whole pile. A utility crew had stopped and were obviously trying to get the driver out. No emergency vehicles were on the scene.

Three hours later, when I came back the opposite direction, the highway was closed. Crews were working to remove the wreckage. For the next fifteen miles, cars in the oncoming lanes were at a stand-still. People were milling about, talking to each other.

I found out on the internet that the driver was injured, but lived. The content of the trailers was hazardous, so they were taking their time in removing them from the scene.

There seems to be an uncommon number of accidents on I-10, which is the southern most cross-country freeway in the United States, running from Los Angeles to north Florida. It is almost always jam packed, even in the open areas of east Texas.

WENT TO THE BOOKSTORE tonight and read the latest book by former UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, entitled The Essential Wooden. Wooden, who is 95 years old, led teams which won 10 NCAA basketball titles in 12 years.

The book is a reiteration of old-time standards of behavior, things we don't hear about enough anymore. His father taught him never to speak ill of others. That's a simple rule which we could all benefit from observing.

Wooden distrusted emotion. He never showed much emotion, either in victory or in defeat. He believed in preparation. If you prepared properly, the game would take care of itself. In any case, you had done all you could, anyway, so no use fretting the result. He was apparently in the same league with Bud Grant.

Oh, Wooden liked to win. But he was more intent upon each person on the team performing up to their potential and contributing to the team effort. The result was that even his teams which had no stars did very well.

No whining. No complaining. No bitterness. Do your best. Prepare. Accept the results. Be fair. The book was a good reminder of all the old Midwestern values which seem to be disappearing from the scene.

Wooden benefited from a father who studied life and passed on aphorisms to young John. I recommend the book. It is about a two-hour read. In other words, don't buy it--just read it at the book store and put it back on the shelf!

TRAFFIC in Phoenix is unnerving. I suppose it is the same in Tucson, but seldom to things slow to a stop on the streets of Tucson. There might be some advantage to Tucson's decision to allow no freeways to circle the city. Yesterday, I traveled to Sun City West, through Phoenix, and it took one-and-a-half hours each way. On the map, it looked like I was just going across town.

THE MUSTANG, pictured below, performs well, and I really enjoy its tight little turning radius. In fact, the first time it spun into a parking spot with ease, I said to myself, "Oh for cute!" I don't know why "cute" seemed to apply to turning radius, but it seemed appropriate. My Ford Ranger requires more forward and back movements, especially with me at the wheel. I'd rather park one-half mile from the entrance of a store than to wiggle into a tight parking space.

THE READING of John Wooden perhaps had something to do with the fact that I am interviewing ballplayers down here from the 1952 Halstad basketball team. I am writing up the story of their year. Right now, I am in the evidence-gathering stage. Yesterday, I spent several hours with the star of the team, if they had a star, Jim Akason, who at one time had scored more points than anybody in Minnesota history. Today, I spent with Dale Serum, who played on the basketball team and then was the catcher for the baseball team which won the state title. Great stories from both players.

One common theme: Everybody seems to bring up the significance of the GI Bill which paid tuition and a stipend for returning GIs who wanted to go to college after World War II. Only the assistant coach, Larry Macleod, actually took advantage of the benefit, but the players from the 1952 team, who almost all went to college, said that seeing the veterans in their mid-twenties return from college in the summers influenced them heavily to go to college themselves. Without the GI Bill, they may not have attended college at all, even though they weren't GIs.

Serum's wife Carol stopped by briefly while Dale and I were talking, and she agreed that the early 1950s were, in her words, "a gem of a time" to be in the small town. I like the phrase. I am going to try to capture the essentials of that time as I write about the teams, for I think the early 1950s were about the peak time in the history of most Minnesota small towns.

February 05, 2007

A not-so-rare sighting

On the way to the Shanghai airport, we spotted a flock of China's national bird, thecrane.


It was cold in Phoenix a few weeks ago, cold enough to freeze some of the trees and plants. I suspect most of them will come back, but in some areas it looks a bit like fall.

However, the past few days have been perfect. Today it was almost hot. I feel no guilt whatsoever missing the brutal cold back home. There's no reason to endure it when there's Arizona.

I have been working on a writing project. As usual, when you research something you find out many facts which have no relevance to the project at hand but which are interesting none-the-less.

Today, I decided to look into the role of the potato in Norwegian history. I have heard a theory that the potato 1) upped the nutritional value of Norwegian peasant food dramatically 2) caused a drastic increase in live births and a decrease in infant mortality 3) resulted in a surplus of population in rural areas 4) resulted in mass emigration to the Upper Midwest of the United States.

Indeed, the potato played a role in all of the above. In addition, Norway suffered a potato famine similar, but not as severe, as Ireland's in the 1840s and 1850s.

Some interesting facts:

The potato was slow to catch on in Norway until a Lutheran minister took to promoting the potato through books and from his pulpit in the late 1700s.

Many farmers took to distilling the potato into alcohol. Distilling was a common way for farmers all over the world to avoid the trouble of hauling their cumbersome crops to market. Potatoes were particularly cumbersome, and more perishable than grains.

The result of the distilling was a drastic increase in alcohol consumption, which reached a high of 10.3 liters of pure alcohol per Norwegian person over the age of 15 annually. Sweden was worse. The Swedes reached a high of 23 liters annually per Swede about the same time.

Although one would think the alcohol was consumed mostly by men, women drank, too--as did children.

A bizarre finding: Alcohol consumption by men affected women's mortality rates more than it did the men's. Apparently, having a drunk for a husband meant that you didn't get the food you needed, and probably had to put up with a lot of stress.

No wonder that so many temperance and prohibition movements rose in the 19th century. The problem was much worse than it is today. Norway adopted Prohibition in 1916.

However, in Norway, booze wasn't the only thing which killed men. Death by drowning was very common. In some areas of Norway, 22 out of every 10,000 people--mostly, but not all, men--died of drowning each year. The only country which has ever come close to such numbers of drowning deaths has been New Zealand, which also has a fishing economy and which also has fjords.

I recently heard a statistic that 50% of Norway's population moved to the Upper Midwest in the late 1800s. The raw numbers look a little less dramatic: Although 750,000 Norwegians emigrated from 1865-1930, the population of Norway in 1900 was 2.3 million. These statistics can be played with, since you are dealing with a long period of time. The numbers of emigrants are substantial, but I am going to have to go back and check the 50% statistic as it seems a little inflated.

As usual, you start digging for a simple statistic and you end up with a bundle of complicated ones.

February 04, 2007

Dave Barry's back

Dave Barry comes out of retirement to give his usual sober assessment of the events of the day. Oh, and he also has a blog, which he will be updating during today's big game.

Two-week long mid-life crisis

Since the Mustang didn't cost any more than the other ridiculously high-priced rent-a-cars, I decided to grab it and get my mid-life crisis over with real quick.

The trouble with sports cars is that when compared to my pickup, I feel like I am sitting in a deep bathtub. That has taken some getting used to. However, I love the quick acceleration and the little roar the engine produces when you step on it. It brings me back to my crazy college days when I...well, I drove a rusty station wagon, actually.

Here is the field outside the door of my room at the extended stay hotel in Chandler. It is nice to have a little slice of prairie to ease the feeling of congestion one gets when looking the other way.

Super Bowl Sunday