Unless you are an educator

“It doesn’t matter whether you come from a big city, a suburb or a small town, I will fight and win for you,” Mr. Walker said. “Healthy or sick, born or unborn, I will fight and win for you. Young or old or anywhere in between—I will fight and win for you.”

Scott Walker declares his interest in the presidency and says he will fight for you.

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Manufacturing Error?

I have been in a maker mood and exploring solar power. I do not really expect to save any money doing this, but I am interested in alternative energy sources and thought building a working system would be a way to explore and comment.

I bought a kit from Renogy (panel, charge controller, cables), a battery appropriate for off-grid projects, and an inverter. You pretty much hook the panel to the controller (which prevents overcharging and some other important functions), the controller to the battery, the battery to the inverter (like the device you might plug into the cigarette lighter outlet in your car), and the inverter to whatever you want to charge/power.

My brother (an engineer) and I could not get it to work. It was very frustrating and I kept staring at the sparse instructions hoping something would make sense and hoping something was not broken so I would have to go through the process of shipping things back without knowing exactly what was wrong.

Finally, I traced the cables back from the controller to the solar panel and thought my brother had made a mistake by reversing the + and – wires going into the controller. This seemed to be the case, but it was unusual he would make such a mistake. Then we looked carefully at the connection between the short cable leading from the panel and the 20 foot cable you use to connect the panel to other parts of the system.



Each of the pairs of cables can be joined in only one way so you would think an error would be unlikely. If you look carefully, you can see the problem. The two ends that snap together are marked – and + (+ and – for the other cable). So depending on which of these markings you happen to focus on, you have a 50/50 chance of reversing the desired connection to the controller. My brother had made the wrong connection, but only because he assumed the + marking on the connecting cable should go to the + connection point on the controller (most of know to look for a similar match when connecting a charger cable to a dead battery).

I thought I would bring this flaw to Renogy’s attention. I send an email with a picture to customer support. The rep responded indicating this was a known problem and the company was working with their manufacturer to address the problem.

What can you say? I can think of about a dozen ways to fix the problem if you want to continue to sell the mismarked product – file off one of the markings, attach a tag to the cable explaining the error, include a page describing the problem with the documentation, etc. Perhaps engineers and marketers just don’t think like psychologists.


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Turning straw into tomatoes

Lately many of the folks I follow online have been bragging about their failures. You have to be part of the education community for this to make sense. Often, a description of a recent setback brings up a reference to Thomas Edison who supposedly described unsuccessful attempts to develop the light bulb as learning one more thing that would not work. See these were not failures, but learning successes. I typically have few such learning experiences, but a recent effort might qualify.

I have been taken in by the educators who argue we and our students should become makers. The traditional project would involve coding, or building a robot, 3D printing, or something like that. This type of thing is pretty much what I am good at so there would be little opportunity for personal growth. Gardening, the type of activity in which you get your hands dirty and have to bend over, sounded like a more significant challenge. I thought I would make a garden.

So, I was once a farm boy, but that was a long time ago and I could use a little refresher when it comes to all things agricultural. Just to make the task a little more challenging, I decided I would grow vegetables in straw. This is the newest thing. You may have heard of turning straw into gold. I decided I would take my shot at turning straw into tomatoes. It turns out that finding straw was tougher than finding dirt. Cost more too – $4.50 a bale. You can buy a lot of stuff at the grocery for $4.50.

It turns out growing stuff in straw is a multi-stage process. First, you need to turn the straw into dirt and then you grow stuff in the dirt. It is reported that if you dump a little organic fertilizer on straw and water the straw for two weeks it kind of turns into dirt. Compost is what the accomplished gardeners call it. You know what we used to call organic fertilizer back on the farm? Anyway, the inside of the straw is supposed to heat up and this is how you know the conversion process is working. I watched a YouTube online and the lady said you should not do this on your deck because it might start a fire. I think this is one of those things you sometimes find on the Internet that is not exactly true, but I put my bales of straw down by the lake just to be safe. No fires were encountered.

By the way, a couple of geese and their off-spring like to hang out by my bales down by the lake. They leave a great deal of organic fertilizer behind. I already bought my supply in a plastic bag and my supply must have come from a different animal because it smelled a lot better. Who knew? Thing one learned – use the organic fertilizer that comes in a bag.

It was a cold Spring. Thinking back the cold may have prevented the bales from heating up and turning into dirt. Edison would likely have called this learning and made certain his next effort was conducted in a warmer year.

Here is what my bale (compost) garden looks like. The plants just sit there. Since, the plants should be much bigger by now I think I can count this as a failure. The broccoli created a head prematurely instead of waiting for later in the summer and making the kind of head you buy in the store. I am counting this as failure number two.

I guess you could say that things have been going very well. I will offer more insights later.

The curmudgeon
Learning lots


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I am an excellent driver

I am an excellent driver and because of this fact I seldom have difficulties with the highway patrol. I can think of only three instances in my long and distinguished driving career when I have been pulled over and the experience was always the result of a misunderstanding.

Back in ’97, I was driving around Grand Forks with Cindy as one of the first to return to town after the great flood. Cindy was there to work with computer equipment Apple had donated and I was there to take wet carpet out of the basement. We were driving about just to see how bad things were and we were pulled over by an officer. My thought was that there was a concern we were looters. College profs are unable to afford expensive autos. It turned out my vehicle had expired tags. Who goes about town looking for vehicles with expired tags in the aftermath of great flood that forced the evacuation of the entire community? I am guessing he was bored. He did let me off with a warning.

Then, there was that time in South Dakota. I was driving through the nothingness of South Dakota on the Interstate and I came across a construction zone with those orange cones visible for miles into the distance. I tapped my brakes to slow down from my normal driving speed of 65. Out of no where comes this officer with lights blazing. Evidently, I was going 62 in a 55 construction zone and all fines double. I indicated to the officer that I had hit my brakes (as he had seen my brake lights) and there was in fact no actual construction going on nor any other vehicle for as far as the eye could see, He suggested that if I wanted to contest my ticket I could make a court appearance in Pierre. Since that would be about 500 miles out of my way, I decided to pay the ticket. Have a good day.

My final encounter just happened. I was driving carefully in my Minneapolis suburb to get Cindy some sinus medicine at the drug store. As I approached the turn into the parking lot, I saw lights behind me. I courteously signalled I intended to complete my turn and waited for the officer in the parking lot. Where do they get these guys? He seemed high school age and was not wearing his hat. I know you are supposed to wear your hat.

“Are you Mark”, the patrolman asked.

“Yes I am”, I responded bewildered. How could he know my name?

“Our records show you and Cindy do not have Minnesota driver’s licenses” (see previous post – you can see why I found this ironic).

Now, I knew I could have a little fun.

“I have my license in my pocket.”

“Can I see it?”

“Certainly”, I said. “I just took the exam a week or so ago and I was told to show this form (producing form) to explain why my North Dakota license has a clipped corner. ”

I considered I might tell him I missed only one question on the exam and that this question was poorly written. By the way, did he know the difference between the fines when an accident resulting from drunk driving results in moderate as opposed to serious injury? I do. I decided not to show off.

The officer disappears. I guess he had to sit down to read the document I gave him.

He came back, gave me my ND license and document and said “You are good to go. Have a nice day.”

“Sir, I passed my licensing exam more than a week ago, It is funny your computer does not have this information.”

“You should be getting your MN license in a few days.”

So it goes in Minnesota. Have a nice day.


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MN Nice

I have been studying to take the MN driver’s knowledge test. I am learning lots – hopefully enough. There are many distances – 12 inches from the curb, your lights should help you see 350 feet when you cannot see 550 and fines – minimum fine for a violation of a work area has been increased to $300.

Some things I have learned disappoint me about the state. Do you know that if you run out of gas and pull your vehicle to the side of the road your vehicle now represents a hazard and you can be fined? I guess you are supposed to just push your car into the ditch because of your lack of attention to the gas gauge (which should never be obscured from view by something hanging from your mirror).

So much for Minnesota nice.

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A goose is a goose unless it is a concrete chicken

I spend a lot of time generating professional development content for teachers. One of the frustrating things about this commitment is that things change quickly and the more content you generate the more likely something will be inaccurate. I have long used Flickr as my suggestion for how teachers might make educational use of digital photography. One of the major advantages was the free cost of a sizeable storage account.

Today, I learned that my description of Flickr was no longer accurate. Google announced unlimited free storage. Not only was there no cost, but Google described a unique search feature allowing the location of old images based purely on descriptions. You could ask for images of “Paris” to see images from your 2004 trip or Cindy to find pictures of your wife (my wife). This just seemed too magical to believe so I decided to give it a try. I knew that I had taken a picture of a pair of geese and several goslings a couple of weeks ago so I thought I would see if Google could locate the picture.



Sure enough, Google found the photo. You have to admit this is pretty impressive. I searched for “goose” and I find my photo. The photo is labelled “babes in the weeds” so the system Google uses had to know these were Canadian Geese.

Google did return several other images and it does seem there are still some bugs to be addressed. All of the images were of birds – broadly defined. Among the images was the following.


This image did bring back memories. It is the statue of a chicken I think I took in Hawaii. So, Google evidently understands that a goose is a bird and can search for images containing “bird like” objects. Impressive.

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Live TWITs will be gone

The Twit podcast network, long a source for tech news, has announced that it will no longer provide live broadcasts (including chatter from the studio) and do away with the chat that accompanied the live programming. The chats were a popular feature of the programming and used by the on-air talent to obtain information used to answer questions.

The reason for the changes are a bit unclear (to me). Leo Laporte mentioned the chats were having trouble with trolls during a recent MacBreak Weekly.

I find these changes unfortunate as participatory programming is unique and the network is now really offers television online. This will have a different feel.

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A year ago I retired from the University of North Dakota. Evidently someone must have noticed I was gone. This Spring I received an email indicating I had been labeled emeritus and given a gift. I was asked to report to the Office of the President to pick up my gift. So I did.

Emeritus is derived from the greek – merit and tokus. Merit implies the need for a celebration and well tokus you can look up for yourself. Evidently emeritus suggests that there is now cause for a celebration as we can see that you are leaving (sometimes and don’t let the door hit your backside on the way out).

The present? This one had me stumped.



I was given a ream of stationary and a stack of envelopes. I think this was the decision of the President’s secretarial staff.Presidents do not involve themselves with such decisions. There is a possibility UND hired a consultant, but I still think the secretaries had the final say. I can kind of imagine the conversation.

Secretary 1 – Grabe is coming over to collect his emeritus gift. What can we give him?

Secretary 2 – The traditional gift is a watch or a rocking chair. The legislature has been watching our budget so extravagant gifts like watches are a thing of the past. The boss has grown quite attached to that rocking chair so I do not want to explain to him we gave it to a faculty member.

Secretary 1 – We must have something around here that will do. Look in the back room and see what you can find.

Secretary 2 -There was a coffee cup with an inappropriate logo, but the cup had stains I could not remove.  How about this – I found some stationary and envelopes.

Secretary 1 – Shall we throw in some stamps?

Secretary 2 – I may have a couple in my purse.


What do I do when I am puzzled by some event in my life? I take a picture and write a blog post.


OK – it probably did not go down exactly as I have described. My name does appear at the top of each sheet of stationary.

Probably an afternoon’s work for a work study student.

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The one with the sauce rack

Have you seen that television commercial in which the guy decides he cannot spend his orange money on the awesome grill with the sauce rack because he must save for his awesome retirement. Well, when retirement comes Cindy decides there is no longer a reason to wait.


Evidently, it is time to spend the orange money. I wonder if I could spend some on a couple of big kids to help me move this thing to the deck.

For those who do not understand the “orange money” reference, view a couple of the ads on Youtube.

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Don’t put your nose in where it does not belong

So I was spreading lime on the grass. As I moved around the perimeter of the yard, I was startled by snakes. These things will get your attention.



It gets weirder. The snakes were amorously engaged and one of the snakes evidently makes a poor decision and tries to force its head through the wire net that borders our yard.  I decided to give the snakes some privacy after I took a couple of pictures.


Before we went out for dinner this evening, Cindy wanted to see where I had found the snakes. One snake remained with his/her head stuck in the mesh. Evidently snakes do not have a reverse and the poor animal kept trying to forge ahead. His/her partner turned out only to be interested in a short term relationship and was gone. We could not get the snake out by trying to push it backward or by picking up the wire and shaking. The wire would have to be cut. This was not an easy task. The snake hissed when touched and twisted around. A safe approach – hedge clippers – could not cut the wire immediately around the neck. This would require a delicate touch. The solution turned out to be a wire cutter I located in Cindy’s hobby tool kit. This small tool required a close encounter of the snake kind so I used a shovel to hold the head down and was able to snip the wire. Away it slithered.

There is probably a lesson here, but I will leave it to you to figure out just what that might be.


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