Archive for June, 2009

Senator Franken

After 8 long months, we finally have two Senators again.  I voted for Al Franken, so I’m happy that he has finally won.  But, my happiness was just soured by a co-worker whose IM status reads “Franken joins Ahmadinejad in election stealing success!”  Wow.  

Coleman said “Further litigation damages the unity of our state,” during a news conference held at his St. Paul home.  That assumes there was unity to begin with.

Close Enough to Free to Round Down

FreeMalcolm Gladwell, a Broken Spines favorite, provides a nice counterpoint to the digital age mantra of “build it and they will come” as articulated in Chris Anderson’s new book: “Free: the Future of a Radical Price.” 

Anderson describes an experiment conducted by the M.I.T. behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of “Predictably Irrational.” Ariely offered a group of subjects a choice between two kinds of chocolate—Hershey’s Kisses, for one cent, and Lindt truffles, for fifteen cents. Three-quarters of the subjects chose the truffles. Then he redid the experiment, reducing the price of both chocolates by one cent. The Kisses were now free. What happened? The order of preference was reversed. Sixty-nine per cent of the subjects chose the Kisses. The price difference between the two chocolates was exactly the same, but that magic word “free” has the power to create a consumer stampede.

But, Gladwell turns Anderson’s YouTube example around and points out how Free isn’t really working out for YouTube and its parent Google.  

YouTube lets anyone post a video to its site free, and lets anyone watch a video on its site free, and it doesn’t have to pass judgment on the quality of the videos it archives. “Nobody is deciding whether a video is good enough to justify the scarce channel space it takes, because there is no scarce channel space,” he writes, and goes on:

Distribution is now close enough to free to round down. Today, it costs about $0.25 to stream one hour of video to one person. Next year, it will be $0.15. A year later it will be less than a dime. Which is why YouTube’s founders decided to give it away. . . . The result is both messy and runs counter to every instinct of a television professional, but this is what abundance both requires and demands. 

But, according to Credit Suisse, Google is spending $500 million to support YouTube and it has yet to make a profit.  Advertisers don’t want their ads associated with stupid pet tricks.  And, with the video capabilities of new cell phones, YouTube videos have jumped 1700% in the last 6 months.  That’s a lot of inane video.

Citizen Sabo

As I boarded the train home last night, sitting there across from me was none other than former 5th District Congressman, and Chair of the Budget Committee, Martin Olav Sabo.  He was riding the train to the Twins game.  We both remarked that it was a nice night to have a dome — next year at Target Field, the game would have been canceled due to the rain.  I asked if he got back to Washington much.  He said, “not if I can help it.”  

The Twins went on to beat the Pirates 8-2.  Mauer went 4 for 4 bringing his average to .429.

No Discernible Circumference

We at Broken Spines have taken it upon ourselves to improve the vocabulary of Matt H.  To wit, I thought we would start by quantifying the task at hand.  We have no illusions, it will be an awesome task. 

The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, cautions us:

The Vocabulary of a widely diffused and highly cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits… there is absolutely no defining line in any direction: the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.

That said, the OED2 has over 600,000 definitions (over 1,000,000 if you include scientific words).  Webster’s Dictionary claims over 475,000 main “head words.”  According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language passed one million words at 10:22PM GMT on June 10, 2009.  Apparently, in the intervening 5 days, we’ve added 73 words, because today the count is 1,000,073.  So, what was the one millionth word?  “Web 2.0” beat out Slumdog Millionaire and gamer slang:

1,000,000: Web 2.0 – The next generation of web products and services, coming soon to a browser near you.

999,999: Jai Ho! – The Hindi phrase signifying the joy of victory, used as an exclamation, sometimes rendered as “It is accomplished”. Achieved English-language popularity through the multiple Academy Award Winning film, “Slumdog Millionaire”.

999,998: N00b — From the Gamer Community, a neophyte in playing a particular game; used as a disparaging term.

999,997: Slumdog – a formerly disparaging, now often endearing, comment upon those residing in the slums of India.

Check here for FAQs on GLM’s methodology.

But, far more interesting than the quantity of words is the quality of words.  And for that we turn to a fantastic feature of the New York Times website: you simply select the word in question, a little question mark appears, and when you click on the question mark a small window pops up with a definition. 

In Paul Krugman’s May 24th column “State of Paralysis,” he uses the neo-Latin word “sui generis”:

Sui Generis




After clicking the question mark, here is the definition that pops up:

NYT Dictionary

So, which words are clicked the most often?  The Nieman Journalism Lab has tallied them for us.  Test yourself and see how many you know.  Matt H., this is your vocabulary list for the next bout.  There will be a test.

NYT vocabulary

McAllen, Texas and the Overuse of Medicine

Atul Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a talented writer.  Last week the New Yorker published an essay of his, The Cost Conundrum, about how McAllen, Texas is the most expensive healthcare market in the US (and probably the world).  Granted people are not very healthy in McAllen.  So, he compared McAllen’s average of $15,000 per person to nearby, and equally unhealthy, El Paso … costs were almost exactly half of McAllen, $7,504 to say nothing of quality or outcomes (for the highest quality outcomes we turn to Mayo Clinic, in our fair state, which costs an average of $6,688).  So, why are costs in McAllen twice what they are elsewhere?  Simply put: overuse of medicine.  Gawande explains that doctors are compensated not on quality of their care rather quantity:

Between 2001 and 2005, critically ill Medicare patients received almost fifty per cent more specialist visits in McAllen than in El Paso, and were two-thirds more likely to see ten or more specialists in a six-month period. In 2005 and 2006, patients in McAllen received twenty per cent more abdominal ultrasounds, thirty per cent more bone-density studies, sixty per cent more stress tests with echocardiography, two hundred per cent more nerve-conduction studies to diagnose carpal-tunnel syndrome, and five hundred and fifty per cent more urine-flow studies to diagnose prostate troubles. They received one-fifth to two-thirds more gallbladder operations, knee replacements, breast biopsies, and bladder scopes. They also received two to three times as many pacemakers, implantable defibrillators, cardiac-bypass operations, carotid endarterectomies, and coronary-artery stents. And Medicare paid for five times as many home-nurse visits. The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme costs was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine.

Apparently, Obama has made this mandatory reading for his staff.  If we could reign in places like McAllen, Medicare could save 30%.

Finding Excellence in Unexpected Places: A Broken Spines Restaurant Review

You would miss ‘Round Up North’ driving through Brule (population 643) in northern Wisconsin.  It is in a low-slung building just off of Highway 2, north of Lake Nebagamon and south of the Apostle Islands and Lake Superior.


We were traveling from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan through northern Wisconsin with my wife and three boys (7, 5, and 3) and needed a bathroom stop. So, we pulled off the highway, and since it was close to dinner time, we looked around for options.  As with any northern town there are three or four bars with narrow windows that look like they do a brisk business in the wintertime with men on snow machines.  But, a block or so in, barely visible from the road, we saw ‘Round Up North’. We thought we would have a pizza and be on our way. Deep in Green Bay Packer country, we had no idea we were about to be treated to true Italian hospitality and gourmet cooking.


A camouflaged Polaris ATV was parked out front.  Inside, the obligatory 12 point buck was mounted to the wall and a Cubs game going into the 14th inning was on tv.  We were enthusiastically greeted by a man I assume is the owner. Unprompted, he brought the boys apple sauce, juice boxes, crayons and paper. Then he took our order: two Leinenkugels and a large pizza with homemade sausage. He brought our beers and a small dish of homemade marinated pepper antipasto along with fresh, warm dinner rolls. Continuing his perfect timing, he brought out the pizza with a light crispy crust, just the right amount of sauce and cheese – and the fennel sausage was magnificent.


After the pizza, and again unprompted, he brought us a small dish of homemade gelato and biscotti. It was the kind of desert that,  through its subtle sweetness, brings a meal to its climax.


This four-course meal for the five of us cost $22.61.  I can barely get a personal-sized Punch Pizza for that price.  The only thing that was better than the phenomenal food was the friendly service and genuine hospitality.


So what made this experience so excellent?  Perfectly timed and executed service.  By immediately sating the boys with apple sauce and crayons, my wife and I were able to relax.  The proprietor somehow knew that my wife would not care for marinated peppers and brought them only to me.  Not only did I thoroughly enjoy them, the gesture made me feel like I was at the head of the table.  Furthermore, it is nice to sit back and simply have food brought to you without have to order it or know to order it.  If the pepper antipasto was on the menu, I doubt I would have thought to order it.  But, perhaps most important of all, Round Up North’s owner clearly took pride in his work.  He was proud of his marinated peppers, homemade sausage, gelato and biscotti, and wanted us to eat them.


Next time you find yourself in northern Wisconsin, stop at Round Up North and tell them Broken Spines sent you.

Is It Embarrassing to Drive a GM Vehicle?

Yesterday, I got back from a weekend road trip with 7 other fellow golfers.  We drove 222 miles north to the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa‘s Fortune Bay Casino‘s Wilderness Golf Course in Tower, MN.  In their “Top Courses You Can Play” ranking, Golfweek puts Wilderness as the #1 course in Minnesota, but Deacon’s Lodge (#4 according to them) is still my favorite.

Anyhow, we drove up in a Chevy Avalanche which Jerry described as the “most versatile vehicle on the road today.”  While it only got 13 miles to the gallon, it did fit three of us very comfortably with golf clubs, coolers, and suitcases piled in the back.  But, John summed it up best when he quipped “isn’t that company bankrupt?”  John drives a Honda Pilot.  JP laughed, he drives a Ford Explorer.

What makes matters worse, is that I too drive a GM vehicle that happens to be manufactured in Trollhättan Sweden.  That’s right I drive a Saab.  And, no, I don’t own a corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches either.  After GM’s bankruptcy announcement, I went to the Saab web site and the headline there was “Saab is not part of the GM filing.”  The period in that sentence seemed emphatic.  I think the Swedes would rather have said “Saab is not part of GM(period dammit!).  But, they can’t.  Apparently, a Chinese investment group just decided not to purchase Saab from GM.

So, how do I feel about driving a car from a manufacturer that even its own parent company doesn’t want?  I still like the car.  I like its unique styling.  If anything, I think that’s what Detroit has gotten wrong — making cars that look the same.  In fact, the latest Saabs have begun to look like just all the other sedans.  And, then they went an put the Saab badge on a Subaru Impreza and the GMC Envoy (Trailblazer/Bravada).  Are you willing to pay more for a Subaru Impreza because it has a Saab 9-2X label on it?  Why do they need three brands for the same truck?  Does anyone say “oh, I’d never be seen in an Oldsmobile Bravada, but I do like the GMC Envoy”?  It’s silly.

The other day I was walking out of a coffee shop and a thug yelled “German cars suck!”  I calmly replied, “good thing it’s not German.”  Most folks probably don’t know it’s Swedish let alone a GM car – and I like it that way.

Saab 9-3


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