Archive for June, 2012

[This is not ordinary blog fare as it contains a good deal of technical information regarding currency production.  I felt compelled to document the experience, though, because it was an unexpected little thrill.  My apologies to those of you who don’t “speak the language.”  I’ll be happy to explain things in lay terms if you’re curious. 🙂 ]

I’m aware of many folks who have received surveys in the mail that contain a few dollar bills as an incentive to complete and return the survey.  I’ve always felt a little envious because I never receive those things.  But a few weeks ago, a postcard came in the mail from the Nielsen Corporation  informing me that I would soon be sent a survey to participate in their data collection of TV viewing habits.  Naturally my first thought was whether their envelope would contain a few CU (crisp uncirculated) notes, haha.

Well, as promised by the postcard, on Tuesday I received an envelope containing a TV viewing log wherein I’m supposed to record information about what my household watches on TV during a specific week.  I’m afraid they’re going to be disappointed in what I send them because I don’t watch that much TV.  But the instruction booklet says that’s okay, they need to know that sort of thing, too.  When I flipped over the TV log, lying there before my eyes were the backs of several CU $1 notes!  Hooray, I’ve finally arrived!  I wonder what the FRB (federal reserve bank) and block will be.  Will any of them be star notes?

The return address of the envelope is Oldsmar, Florida, but who knows whether the notes actually came from that region of the country.  I turned over the top note, and it was a run 12 series 2009 L-L block. Nothing extraordinary about the serial.  I turned over the next two notes, and they were all consecutive.  Then I turned over the fourth note, and to my amazement and delight it was a run 3 series 2006 G-* note!  The fifth note was also a run 3 series 2006 G-* note.  No doubt the selection of notes was random on their part, but oh the serendipity!

Now, here’s the weird part.  I looked more closely at the L-L notes and realized that although brand new, two of them weren’t perfect.  One has a slice missing from the lower left corner, and another has something similar except that the edge of the note is jagged in the way that a dull scissor will leave an unclean cut.  At first, I thought I may have caused the damage because I used a serrated knife to open the envelope.  (Ouch.)  But the notes were inbetween the log and some other paper, and I don’t think I put the knife that deeply into the envelope.  The two damaged notes were also in the middle of the five notes, so I don’t know how I would have managed to damage those and not the rest.  Also, there are no bits of torn-away note anywhere.  I decided Nielsen’s processing equipment must have chewed up the notes a bit.

Hmm.  On the other hand, the fact that two star notes were included here could be significant.  It made me wonder if the damage was actually done at the BEP (Bureau of Engraving and Printing).  Perhaps they discovered some damaged sheets and replaced them with star sheets, but two of the adjacent sheets, although minorly damaged, weren’t bad enough to warrant replacing.  The plate position of the L-L notes is B3.  As I recall, the order of the notes in the envelope was L738..55L on top (face down) followed by L738..54L, then L738..53L, then G065..41X*, then G065..42X*.  Perhaps the stars were replacements for L738..52L and L738..51L.  The two damaged notes are L738..54L and L738..53L, which were immediately adjacent to the star notes in the envelope.  The star notes are undamaged.

To add to the mystery, run 3 happens to have been an odd-sized short run of 16,000 sheets.  Short runs are commonly produced for replacing damaged individual sheets before the cutting and bundling step. However, the BEP reported this run for use as replacement notes, meaning it was produced to replace whole straps where damage has been found after notes have been cut and bundled.  So it’s confusing as to why these two star notes would show up in the middle of a regular strap – if, in fact, that’s what happened.  There could be any number of other explanations, though.  It seems peculiar, for example, that those run 3 star notes were serialed a full two years earlier (December 2009) than the L-L notes (December 2011). One would think that particular run of stars would have been used up well before then.  Further, the BEP Fort Worth facility produced at least two, and probably three, short-run star blocks to be used as replacement sheets subsequent to the run 3 series 2006 G-* block, and it seems like those later runs would have been the more likely to show up within the L-L run.

Anyway, here is a closeup of the two damaged notes:

Close-up of damaged notes

After posting this information on a web forum attended by currency collectors, I learned that the note with the jagged pieces still intact was most likely damaged at the BEP by a dull cross-cutter on the COPE-Pak press.  As to the mystery of the star notes, I realized later that the idea I had posited couldn’t have been correct.  For one thing, the plate position of the star notes would have to have been the same as that of the L-L notes, but it isn’t; the star note plate position is A2.  Further, the production process at the BEP is such that the gyrations I was going through to explain the damage and presence of star notes was not physically possible.  A simpler explanation was offered: whoever packaged the notes into the survey mailer happened to have a strap of series 2009 L-L notes and a strap of series 2006 G-* notes, and somehow or other this is the way they got mixed-and-matched.  I’m quite satisfied with that explanation.  Indeed, I like the idea that someone took notes from two different piles and inserted them in the one envelope. “Hey, this next guy on the list is a collector,” he said to another co-worker stuffing envelopes.  “I’ll throw in a couple of stars, he’ll appreciate them.” 🙂

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In a previous life, I took an active interest in weather.  I even went so far as to complete a master’s degree in atmospheric sciences.  Although I have not pursued a career in that field, it was a good educational experience, and I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to study what I was interested in at the time.

I maintain a passing interest in weather, insofar as I enjoy perusing daily and long-term climate data, charts, maps and so on.  Extremes have always been of particular interest to me, and those are what actually led me to pursue meteorology in school.  As I think back, it was a record high temperature (100F; 38C) that triggered this interest in extremes.

<CURMUDGEON>Back in my day, we didn’t have no stinkin’ heat index.</CURMUDGEON>  One hundred degrees felt like – one hundred degrees.  It was simply hot.  It’s different today, though.  The National Weather Service and tv/radio weather reporters didn’t sound the alarm to scare the hell out of us like they do today.  We’re told that the heat index makes it feel hotter than the actual temperature.  “The high today will be 97, but WITH THE HEAT INDEX IT’S GOING TO FEEL LIKE 118, SO EVERYONE PANIC!  STOCK UP ON BOTTLED WATER!  CRANK THE AIR CONDITIONER!  DON’T GO OUTSIDE!  HIDE THE KIDS!  HIDE THE DOG!”  All as though we’ve never experienced hot weather.

The same thing happens in winter when we’re bludgeoned over the head with wind chill.  “The overnight temperature will drop to four above, but WITH THE WIND CHILL IT’S GOING TO FEEL LIKE 26 BELOW, SO EVERYONE PANIC!  STOCK UP ON WOOD!  CRANK THE FURNACE!  DON’T GO OUTSIDE!  HIDE THE KIDS!  HIDE THE DOG!”  Yeah, it’s cold, but I mean, come on.  When you live in a place where cold weather is commonplace, what’s the difference if the temperature is +4 or -26?   (Side note: I remember one winter several years ago when we had a prolonged period of extreme cold, the worst of which saw a “high” temperature of -14F (-26C).  When the weather finally moderated and the temperature climbed more than thirty degrees to +15F (-9C), admittedly it felt noticeably, er, not as cold (can’t really say ‘warmer’).)  In any case, the point is that +4 and -26 are both cold, plain and simple.  We don’t need to be told that.

To all meteorologists and weather reporters who may be reading this, please take my word for it when I say that it isn’t necessary to make the weather sound more extreme than it actually is.  Nineties and hundreds are hot no matter how you look at it.  To say that the temperature is 91 but it feels like 98, well, what does 98 feel like?  Because when the temperature is 98, we’re told that it feels like 106.  But what does 106 feel like?  We’re told that the temperature is 106 but it feels like 111.  It can be proven mathematically that if a=b and b=c and c=d, then a=d.  Thus, is it fair to infer that 91 feels like 111?  Where does it end?  It’s okay to say that it’s going to be hot, drink plenty of fluids, be careful to limit outdoor activities and so forth.  But we know what hot feels like.  Please don’t supersize the weather; it’s unnecessary and meaningless.  Please?  Thank you.


Hot enough for ya?

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“My question is, does time really matter?” Cyndi asked philosophically.

This was a question posed by a co-worker years ago when a number of us were having a discussion about time.  It was June 7, 1989, and I probably brought up the fact that later in the afternoon, the time was going to be 3:45 on 6-7-89.  Cyndi’s question struck me as deep.

A few years ago, I participated with eighty or ninety other folks to help plant prairie seed in a restoration in the Faville Grove Sanctuary north of Lake Mills.  Several high school students were among the volunteers.  While weaving my way back and forth in a quadrant and dispersing seed and sawdust to the wind, I heard one of the high schoolers ask another, “What time is it?”  The response was, “I don’t know, I don’t have my . . . [fill in the blank].”  Naturally I expected the kid to say “watch.”  But I was wrong.  “Cell phone,” was the reply.  That jarring incident began to wake me up as to how out-of-date I was becoming.

A report on the news this morning cited a recent survey that found that 60% of people admitted to checking their smart phones at least once each . . . [fill in the blank].  I was expecting the reporter to say, “day.”  Instead, she said, “hour.”  Wow.  Talk about rubbing it in.  Could I possibly be any more out of touch with the modern world?  I don’t have a smart phone, though I do carry around a flip phone.

Cell Phone

What do all these d*mn buttons do anyway?

I even know how to dial a phone number on it.  But on average, I probably check it about once every fortnight.  And that’s only if my partner inquires as to whether the battery needs to be charged.

The survey also found that people go, on average, 41 days without writing anything by hand (other than a scribbled note).  I have always enjoyed physically writing — whoops, pardon me, ran out of ink; hold on while I dip my quill in the inkwell so that I may continue.  In school, before computers were so commonplace, I used to spend hours and hours painstakingly writing and re-writing papers by hand, getting increasingly paranoid as I neared the end of the page because I worried about making it all the way through without needing to use Liquid Paper.  Bottle of Liquid PaperI suppose kids these days don’t even know what Liquid Paper is.  Heck, I’ve heard that cursive writing is no longer taught in many schools.  Twenty or thirty years from now, tv programs and magazines (or their future equivalents) will feature stories about some guy who writes things by hand, and everyone will ooh and ahh over how talented he is.  Mark my words; I want credit as a clairvoyant, please.

I have to admit that the quality of my own handwriting has suffered over time.  I used to have lovely penmanship.  I learned and practiced calligraphy in school, and though I rarely do calligraphy anymore, it remains a thoroughly enjoyable activity.

It’s odd for me to observe how much of a relic I am becoming.  I don’t know how to txt,  or .  I can’t tell you what movies are currently playing or what tv shows are popular.  I don’t even follow music anymore.  “There’s an app for that.”  What’s an app?  How, exactly, does an iPod play my audiocassettes?  My partner recently said something about Blu-ray.  Oh, is that the thing you wear in your ear that lets you talk on the phone as you walk around?  (No joke, I actually asked that question.)

It seems to me that the answer to my co-worker’s question lo these many years later is unequivocally “Yes.”  Time does matter, because if you don’t pay attention to it, you’ll find yourself living in a different world than everyone else.  Not that that’s necessarily bad, mind you; but you ought to be certain it’s what you really want and not merely what you’ll end up with if you ignore time.

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June 24

My brain has a calendar embedded inside, and on balance, I like it. From a functional standpoint, it’s incredibly useful to have a keen sense of the distance of time.  Tell me two random days of the year, and immediately I feel exactly how far apart they are from one another. August 20 and October 13, for example, are 54 days apart, which means there are seven (or in some years, eight) weekends between them.  If there are four events happening on different weekends during that period, that tells me that I have just three free weekends for other things.

I also remember dates.  My third grade teacher’s birthday was June 3; on September 11, 1982, I bowled in a league for the first time; I got my driver’s license on March 28, 1986; my first day of work at the first “real” job I ever had was February 18, 1987; we bought our Honda Accord on March 27, 1997.  Don’t know why my brain remembers such trivial things, it just does.  It’s kinda cool, actually; on rare occasion, it even is useful.  However, as I age, my brain might be getting full, because nowadays I find that I don’t always remember the dates of more recent little things that have happened.

But remembering dates is something of a curse, too, because along with the good and neutral, I also remember dates of bad things.  And each year, as I watch those dates get closer and closer on the calendar, they serve as reminders.  And that can be a drag.

My grandmother died June 24, 1990.  The occurrence was significant for me because when I was ten years old, she had moved to our city after retiring, and for the first time in my life, I got to know her as more than a distant relative.  She lived in our city for three years before moving away (November 5, 1981) to live near her sister.  In the last year of her life, her health began to deteriorate, and she moved back to live with us.  Those eight or nine years apart had made us distant again.  Also, by then I was an adult relating to her on a different level than when I was a kid.  She kind of felt like a stranger, which made me a little sad, and I regret not having made more of an effort to become close again.  The day of her 50th wedding anniversary (August 24, 1989), she proudly made a point of telling me that she and her late husband had married fifty years earlier.  She didn’t know that I was aware of that, and I wish that I had talked with her more about it, because it was clearly of great significance to her.

When June 24 comes around each year, I always think of my grandmother. (I also think of her on her birthday in September, too, which is a happier reason to remember her.)  Sometimes I wonder if any of my other family thinks about her on this date, too.  I’ve never asked.

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Traveling is a favorite pastime of a lot of people, but I’m more of a homebody.  I think it’s because mentally I find traveling to be too disruptive to my usual routine.  (Not that I’m predictable or anything.)  Having said that, I enjoy a long road trip and travel by train.  But air travel sucks.


I used to love to fly.  It was exciting, adventurous, and not excessively stressful when going through an airport.  I liked the airline food and watching the suitcases appear on the conveyor belt in baggage claim.  It was fun to board the plane, wondering where your seat would be and what view you would have.  Leaving the ground when gray skies were overcast and raining and then soon appearing above the soft white puffy expanse with dazzling sunshine and deep blue skies was mood-altering and almost magical.  From high up in the air, the sight of mountains and rivers and roads, the patchwork of farm fields and ranches, frozen lakes in winter and fireworks in summer is captivating.

As I recall, the last time I flew was in 2007.  That was before body scanners, no-more-than-three-ounces-of-liquid, extra charges for baggage and aisle seats.  Of course, even at that time you were assumed to be a criminal just like today.  “Empty your pockets.” “Put your shoes in the bucket.” “Have your id out and ready.”  Beep.  Why do I beep?  Every time I go through one of those detectors, it always beeps.  (Side rant: So many stores have detectors at the entrance doors, and I beep every time.  I’ve joked that it must be the metal plate in my head.  But it irritates me that I’m automatically suspect as a shoplifter.)  So they wanded me and eventually concluded I was harmless and let me go on my way.  Oh, but then did I remember to pick up everything I placed in the bucket?  Where’s my backpack?  Do I have my ticket?  Did they give me back my id?  Wait, you forgot your shoes.  Honestly, I don’t think I’m anywhere near Alzheimer’s stage.  But geez, I feel for elderly travelers who aren’t as sharp as they once were.

The cost has really skyrocketed in recent years, too.  And with all of the recent airline mergers, logical flight paths apparently don’t exist anymore.  Traveling from Portland to Minneapolis?  I have an idea: let’s go to Houston first!  Going from Madison to Boston?  I’ll bet you’ve always wanted to visit Atlanta.

Even Jesse Ventura recently announced that he won’t fly any more because he is tired of “being groped” by TSA personnel.

Trains and Automobiles

In recent years when my partner and I have traveled to visit family in Montana, Oregon or Washington, we have either driven or taken the train.  There is something about driving through open expanses of – not exactly nothingness, more like sparseness – that fascinates my brain.  The landscape of the Dakotas and Montana has an austere beauty to it.  I find its simplicity very attractive (though I will say that the Land of Billboards, aka South Dakota, could do with a few less).

We typically spend two and one-half days driving to get to my parents’ place.  The very first time we drove, we spent 16 hours on the road one day.  That amount of time gets to be a bit much even for me, but we were able to do it because we hadn’t planned on driving for any particular length of time.  We had simply set out and decided to drive until we were tired.  That was also the trip where I tried to locate the geographical center of the United States, which, according to our map, was supposed to be in the vicinity of Belle Fourche, SD.  I didn’t even know whether the spot was marked in any way, though now I see that according to Wikipedia, there is a park dedicated to the honor.  We never did find anything; all we saw during our search were endless miles of fields and ranchland.  That was one of the most fun road trips I’ve ever taken!

We have also taken the train a number of times, and that mode of transportation is most pleasant.  You’re not required to take off your shoes, though you may if you feel like it.  Amtrak’s Empire Builder route stops in lots of small towns, many of which have old-looking train stations that are authentically old. Train Depot in Columbus, Wisconsin Going through Glacier National Park is a sight to behold, particularly in winter.  The food on the train is quite delicious, and eating in the dining car, seated with random passengers, makes for an uncommon experience.  You can purchase a ticket for just a seat, though we have learned to upgrade to a roomette for trips that have at least one overnight.  The roomettes are small (and I mean small – something like 6 feet long by 3 feet wide), Roomette on Amtrak Sleeper Carbut as someone who cannot sleep sitting up, having even a tiny place to lie down makes all the difference in the world.  The bathrooms on the train are tight, and of course the train is in motion most of the time.  But after a while, you learn to balance yourself so that you can put toothpaste on your toothbrush, dip the toothbrush in your little bottle of water, brush your teeth, pour some water to rinse your toothbrush, then rinse your mouth with the rest of the water.  There is even a small shower room, so you don’t have to feel grungy if you’d rather not.

My parents are coming for a visit next month and will travel by train.  It will be a new experience for them, and I hope they like it as much as I do!


“And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.”
— from “City of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman

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Q. Why is it not possible to starve in the desert?

A. Because of all the sand which is there.

I heard this joke a couple of years ago on Prairie Home Companion.  It is one of my favorite jokes.  (Hint: If you don’t get it, say the answer aloud.)  Puns are my favorite form of humor.

Live broadcast

image courtesy of prairiehome.org

Prairie Home Companion is a great radio program.  It is a well-done commentary on life in general, made with six ounces of music, three cups of dialog, one medium-sized monologue, four tablespoons of humor, two teaspoons of salt, half a teaspoon of pepper, an ounce of hope (crushed), a slice each of solemnity and religiosity, and seasoned with political commentary to taste.  After mixing everything together and simmering for two hours, it makes a most delicious feast for the mind.  On top of that, it’s healthy for you and lowers your blood pressure.

The program host, Garrison Keillor, has a knack for zeroing in on life’s realities, both pleasant and un.  I find myself laughing at the humorous and feeling melancholy at the sadness because he captures the essence of humanity so well.  He is effective at making me relate to and appreciate everything that is ordinary.

I especially like Dusty and Lefty, Ruth Harrison, Guy Noir, all of the sound effects, the mix of music, and the annual joke show.  Some pretty good jokesThe show often mentions current events, sometimes obscure ones, and usually has references to the locality from where the show is broadcasting each week.  It’s quite interesting what you’ll hear if you listen closely.

We had the opportunity several years ago to attend a live broadcast of the show when it came to Madison.  It was such a thrill to attend, and it was simply amazing to observe how well orchestrated the program is.

In a world where we are continually bombarded with caustic politics, horrific images of wars that just won’t end, the selfish refusal to acknowledge our fellow world citizens as people, I have found that Prairie Home Companion helps me maintain some level of sanity in a world that too often is … crazy.  (You probably thought I was going to say “insane.”)

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Bike Bell

Getting motivated to exercise has always been tough for me.  I’ve never been that enthused about physical activity.  Yet knowing that exercise is important, I have made a number of attempts to be active.

One summer years ago when I was in college, I began swimming in the morning before class.  The very first day, after struggling to complete six lengths in the pool, I was dying.  But I didn’t give up, and within a month’s time, I was able to keep going back and forth with seemingly little effort.

Some years ago, I took up swimming again before work and experienced more or less the same thing, although I never quite reached the same level of ease going back and forth.  Attribute it to aging.

I knew that I would only be successful at continuing to swim if it became part of my daily routine.  Going to a gym just for the sake of a workout has never worked out for me.  It’s a hassle and simply inefficient to drive to a gym for the sole purpose of exercising.  If going to the gym was one activity in a list of other tasks that need to be done, it’s easier to justify going.  But it feels like a waste if that’s the sole thing I’m doing.

Swimming before work became part of my routine for a while because the pool was (sort of) on the way to work.  I would arrive at my office, put my lunch in the fridge, then walk 20 minutes to the pool, swim, and walk back.  That worked fine as long as the weather was warm.  But as November and December set in, it became a drag to make that walk to the pool in the dark and cold.  When temperatures dropped to the teens and single digits (Fahrenheit; single digits and teens below zero Celsius), I’d spend a lot of time putting on layers before leaving the house.  Having to undo all of that work in the locker room was annoying, and getting naked in a cold locker room wasn’t fun either.  Follow that with the cold shower and the shock of jumping in to a pool that sometimes wasn’t very warm, well, the morning swim eventually disappeared from my routine.

This spring, I took up riding my bike to work, and it’s been a blast.  It’s easy to make the bike riding part of my routine because it takes almost exactly the same amount of time to bike as it does to ride the bus.  And because I’m biking to get somewhere, mentally it feels more efficient than biking just for exercise.

Madison is considered a good city for biking, but until I started doing it, I didn’t appreciate that aspect.  Access to lots of bike paths allows one to minimize one’s time on busy streets.  And I’ve since seen parts of the city that I never knew existed.

One of the very first days that I biked to work, a mama duck and her egg carton full of ducklings scrambled through the grass to the safety of the lake to get away from the approaching monstrous two-wheeled contraptions.  I enjoy watching the ducks and jumping fish and waterskiers and the skyline of the city.

My partner bought bells for our bikes, which I thought would be great fun.  Their primary purpose is to alert people ahead of you that you are approaching from behind.  But quickly I was sad to realize that I would never get to ring mine.  See, I’m slow when it comes to biking.  (Heck, I’m slow when it comes to any physical activity.)  All the other bikers pass me.  “On your left,” I constantly hear.  I can accept the spandex-clad racers zipping by.  But I mean, come on.  Gray-haired men?  Heavy guys?  Little old ladies on pink one-speeds with flowered baskets affixed to the handlebars?  It’s humiliating.

But ringing that bell really gives me a thrill, so sometimes I’ll glance around furtively to see if anyone is within earshot.  If all is clear, I’ll ring that little bell just because.  It makes me happy.  And besides, best to keep the bell in good working condition.  Who knows, one day I could find myself approaching a little kid on a bike with training wheels.  I ought to be prepared, just in case.

“Ding!  Ding!”

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