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Recycling Glass

I was always skeptical of the claims about recycling glass.  I knew there was no market for it.  The city of Winnipeg told us that their recycling contractor, Emterra, was using waste glass as a base for roads built within the landfill area.  If that’s recycling, it’s surely at the edge of what constitutes recycling.  Now I find out, from a CBC investigation of two city recycling programs, the the contractors are not even doing that.  According to this article, most of the glass goes directly into the landfill.  Some of that is stockpiled, but even that is not recycled.  I don’t know what Emterra does here.

Curiously enough, the Province of Manitoba just announded new funding for recycling programs.  They were concerned about the low diversion rates from landfills in the province.  They wanted to encourage more composing of organic waste.  They were also concerned about the amount of institutional and industrial waste that winds up in the landfill, particularly from renovation and demolition companies.  Cardboard, shingles, and drywall could all be recycled, they concluded.  There was no mention of glass.

In general, the economics of recycling are not good.  There are only a few waste products that are profitable to recycle.  Aluminum cans are the prime success story.  Companies that manufacture thin aluminum sheet will take all of the waste cans that they can get.  That’s because it’s quite expensive to refine aluminum ore into any form of the metal.  Aluminum in metallic form is a much cheaper raw material.  The other success story is PET bottles, which can be manufactured into fabrics quite cheaply.  Waste bottles are a cheaper raw material than the usual petroleum chemicals.

Most recycling is done at a loss, and has to be subsidized.  Paper used to be recycled, but it’s not any more.  Demand for paper is dropping as people continue to convert to electronic communications.  Paper plants are closing.  The ones that are left have to minimize their costs.  They utilize pulp wood as their raw material, rather than employing the more expensive process of de-inking waste paper.  Glass is probably the worst example.  The raw material for manufacture of glass containers is white silica sand.  This is inexpensive and easy to obtain.  Used glass could be used instead, but it would have to be sorted to remove brown glass and green glass.  Coloured glass would have to go someplace else, to a market that doesn’t exist.  All this processing is expensive.  New silica sand is cheaper.

I’m sure I’m not typical.  I never put aluminum cans or PET bottles in my blue cart because I never buy products in those containers.  I don’t subscribe to a newspaper, but I still have paper and cardboard that I recycle.  I try not to purchase products that come is glass containers, but sometimes I have no choice.  Occasionally, I do put glass in my blue cart.  I also recycle steel cans and plastic containers.  I assume the cans are made into new steel.  I suspect that the plastics are mostly made into low-grade products like curbs and fenceposts, rather than into new containers.  As I said, recycling is an expensive process.  The city of Winnipeg does have a good composting program, as far as I can tell.  They get all of my leaves and grass clippings.  I hope that they, at least, are properly recycled.


What Next in Iraq

A few days ago, there was an insightful cartoon in one of the British newspaper sites.  It showed several NATO leaders gathered around a wheel of fortune, with Obama about to give it a spin.  Many different options for NATO in Iraq and neighboring countries were displayed on segments of the wheel.  Maybe that is how they will decide what to do next.

The situation is very complex, with no obviously good choices.  In Iraq, ISIS has provoked a response from the west.  They got the response that they expected.  This has all happened before, except that it was al-Qaeda last time.  The US and the rest of the western countries now have another evil enemy.  The US is attacking ISIS from the air, in support of the Kurdish military.  Some countries in Europe are supplying weapons to the Kurds, even though some Kurdish groups were designated as terrorists not so long ago.  Even Canada is playing a part, transporting weapons by air.  The Kurds are defending their own territory, and doing it very well.  They want their own separate country, including part of Iraq.  They also have oil on their territory, something that’s certainly attractive to western countries.  After this war is over, they will have a great deal of bargaining power with the west.  They may well get their own country.  The US, though, wants an inclusive government in Iraq, one that will govern the entire country fairly.  The US is also supporting shia groups in Iraq as they move against ISIS from the south.  Much depends on how effective their counterattack will turn out to be.

The US is in a delicate position in Syria.  They had wanted al-Assad’s government to step down.  They had supported the sunni rebels in Syria, as long as they were moderate groups.  Now these groups have been replaced by ISIS.  As well, the Syrian government has made itself more legitimate by accepting a Russian proposal to dispose of their chemical weapons.  The US, of course, opposes ISIS.  How do they attack ISIS in Syria without taking the side of the al-Assad government?

Iran supports the shia groups in Iraq.  Members of shia Islam are in the majority in Iraq.  Iran has also been aiding in the fight against ISIS, seeing them as a threat to their own country as well.  Iran has even offered to cooperate with the US military in this operation.  Of course, Iran is a traditional enemy of the US.  Iran is also seeking to rehabilitate their image.  What’s going to happen next?

Turkey is also supporting the Kurds against the threat from ISIS, even though Turkey has previously fought against the Kurds and their desire to form their own country.  Turkey, of course, wants to be seen as a western country.  Is their support for the Kurds just a token, or is it the real thing?

Of course the situation in Iraq will change, and will do it in ways that few people expect.  People are more vigorous in defending their land than it defending their ideology.  Sunni and shia groups may not always be on opposite sides.  After all, the two have lived side by side as good neighbors for many years.  Finally, the public messages coming from the leaders of various countries may be completely different from the private actions of those countries.  Expects surprises and shifting alliances.

Western countries have already allied themselves with various groups in Iraq, in order to oppose ISIS.  What will they do about Syria?  Will they tell us that al-Assad is a good guy after all?  The west and Iran have a common enemy now too.  Will they work together, at least behind the scenes?  I have great doubts about that one, but who knows.  Spin the wheel, Obama.


Fuel Economy

Will new cars have better fuel economy than they do now?  I read about this on the web some time ago, but I can’t find the reference now.  It’s essentially an engineering question.  Unfortunately, most of the improvement has already been done.  Streamlining cars has certainly had an effect, but that was done years ago.  Computer-controlled engines are more recent.  That technology has been very effective.  What about putting smaller engines in cars?  That’s already been done, and has gone about as far as it can go.  In a test I heard about, even smaller engines actually used more fuel because they were labouring all the time.  The only thing left to change is the drag on cars from air displacement.  This effect is mainly governed by the frontal area of the car.  The only way to reduce it is to build smaller cars.  That’s unlikely to happen, for a variety of reasons.

Canada follows the US rules for fuel economy.  The US government imposes these rules on companies building cars in the US or importing them.  The rules set the average fuel economy for the entire fleet of cars coming from these companies.  Companies, of course, sell a range of vehicles, some more fuel-efficient than others.  In order to meet the averages, they typically sell a large number of economical cars, along with a few powerful cars that use considerably more fuel.  It’s these powerful ones that make the news, even though not many of them are actually sold.

There’s a conflict between what individuals want, and what the population as a whole wants.  The government wants to reduce fuel consumption over the entire country, but they also don’t want to deprive people of their freedom to buy whatever car they want.  Of course, people want many different things.  Some want low-cost transportation.  Some want an environmentally-friendly vehicle.  Some want a large carrying capacity, either for people or materials.  Some want a small car; some want a large one.  Some want performance, with high speed and lots of engine power.  How can one rule fit such a wide range of requirements?

I recall seeing a review of the Honda Accord, the car I drive, in a British newspaper.  I thought I’d like to see what they thought of my car, but the first thing I read was that the north american Accord was larger than the European model, just because north americans liked larger cars.  That’s a problem right there.  Even more worrying was the revelation that some people, perhaps unconciously, wanted a car that resembled a military vehicle for their own security and as a defensive weapon.  When their choice is driven by fear, they disregard all other factors, including cost and environmental concerns.  A couple of years ago, when I was on a tour of southern Utah, I was surprised to find cattle ranching in the desert.  Ranches there were enormous.  Ranchers had to haul water long distances for their cattle.  They campaigned for low priced fuel, and complained about how many times the cost had risen in recent years.  They’ll be forced out of business if fuel costs rise any more.

What are the solutions?  Of course, there’s no single solution that will satisfy the whole range of demands.  Alternative fuels might offer a solution, but they won’t be able to compete with gasoline until the cost of gas becomes considerably higher.  Most people seem not to be concerned about fuel prices.  They’ve adjusted to them.  They continue to buy large cars, and even larger trucks, as if the cost of fuel was insignificant.  It is significant to some people, though.  Some will have to give up long drives to work and back as uneconomical.  Some will even go out of business.  European countries have raised fuel prices by taxing it heavily.  That has resulted in smaller cars and less driving.  Higher fuel prices will happen anyway as oil supplies are used up.  The taxes are a good way to prepare people for that event.


Bowling Balls and Breakfasts

I’m sure that everybody has a few stories to tell about air travel.  Most of mine are amusing, rather than annoying or an inconvenience.  I suppose I’ve been fortunate.  More likely, my experiences are quite normal.

Some time ago, I went on a vacation trip to Mazatlan, along with three people from work.  There was a long wait when we arrived in Mexico.  Nobody was attending the security area at all.  One of our group told us that the agent was watching a soccer game on TV.  I don’t know if this was true, but he eventually did show up and started the conveyer belt for our luggage.  When it went by him, he only felt each bag.  I saw it as a “laying on of hands”, but others said he was hefting each bag.  They suggested that he was looking for smuggled bowling balls.  Finally, we left the airport and boarded our bus to the hotel.  This was my first winter vacation.  All of us brought winter coats.  Even after dark, the warm mild air felt like springtime.  It was wonderful.  We did need the winter coats when we got home again.

Every year for some time, I attended a computer networking conference in June.  Each one was held at a different university.  One year, it was in St Johns, Newfoundland.  I stayed at the university residence.  The conference was on a Thursday and Friday, but my employer wanted me to stay past the weekend to get a lower rate on the flight.  It was Monday morning when I flew home, with two stop overs.  Because of those and the time change, the airline served us three breakfasts on that trip.  I only ate two, declining the third one.  I liked airline food.  When I recently told this story to a professor who used to teach in St Johns, he told me “you won’t have that problem anymore”.

My only European trip was one to Portugal in 2001.  We were travelling as a group, with two guides.  Of course, I arrived at the airport good and early, before the guides.  I waited a bit, didn’t see anybody I knew, so I bought my ticket and proceeded into the secure area.  Somehow, I checked my bag only as far as Toronto, the first stop on our trip.  The guides and the other people of our group soon joined us in the secure area.  Still, I didn’t realize that my bag was only checked part way.  It was only when we arrived at Toronto and one of the guides looked at my tickets, that I realized the error.  By then we were on our way from one terminal to the other.  The guide told me that I had time to go back and retreive my bag, but I had a better idea.  There was a wicket for the airline just in front of me.  I told the airline agent there what had happened.  He investigated, and assured me that he had rerouted my bag so that it would be checked all the way through to Lisbon.  I was pleased with that, and greately relieved.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work.  At Lisbon, my bag never appeared on the luggage carousel.  I had to fill out a lost luggage report.  The fellow there was astonished when he saw my claim ticket.  Sure enough, my luggage was still in Toronto.  It arrived at my hotel three days later, just when I had given up expecting to see it ever again.  I learned a valuable lesson from that one.

It was only a few years ago that I went on a tour of the Yukon.  I put all of my electronics and camera equipment in my carry-on bag.  Most of it was cords and power supplies, all in separate plastic bags so they wouldn’t get tangled.  At the very bottom was a portable tripod.  The main part of it was a metal tube with a camera mount on one end and a cap on the other, with three metal legs under the cap.  It also had the two arms of a clamp attached to one side of the metal tube.  When they put my bag through the X-ray at Whitehorse, one of the security agents said to the other one “I think we’ve got something here”.  No doubt it looked like a gun on the X-ray, but I knew immediately what it was.  She asked me if she could remove all the contents of my bag.  After she had unpacked all of it, and discovered the tripod on the bottom, she told me that that was the best packed bag she had ever seen.  I agreed, but I’m not bringing that tripod along on any more trips.  I didn’t even use it that time.  They found it again on my return flight.

More recently, I went on a trip to southern Utah.  At Vancouver airport, I had a long walk between the Canadian arrivals area and the US departures area, with a stop at US customs along the way.  They sent me to a waiting room that was filled with people.  I was going to be there a long time, I assumed, so I took out a book and settled down to read it.  Just then, I heard my name being called.  “Is this your bag?”, they asked.  They pointed to a video monitor showing a picture of my bag.  I’d never seen it like that before, but it sort of looked like mine.  I said “yes”, and signed my name.  That was all.  I was off to the departure area, still with lots of time to catch my flight to Las Vegas.


Sanitizing the Past

The other day, I heard a news report on CBC radio about an application that was able to search social media.  It would analyze images and scan text, looking for anything that was potentially compromising.  I believe that each search would cost five dollars.  People could then contact the posters of any such material and ask them to remove it.  My first thought was that here was another way to sanitize your past.

This news report also reminded me of the recent European ruling on web searches, generally called the right to be forgotten.  The purpose of this legislation is to require search engine companies to remove links to erroneous or outdated material.  It’s proven to be very popular.  Certainly, many uses of this service are legitimate, but some people are also using it to rewrite history.  Of course, the original material is still there, but it no longer appears in the search results.

Google is a victim of its own success in the web search arena.  People assume that if the information they want is not found in a Google search, it doesn’t exist.  In practice, they rarely look beyond the first page of search results, even though there may be dozens of pages of results.  With the links removed, they will never know about the missing information.

These attempts to rewrite history and to sanitize the past bring up images of George Orwell‘s book 1984.  It was twice made into movies.  I prefer the first one, in black and white.  Winston Smith worked at the Ministry of Truth, which was responsible for lies.  His job was to change the past.  Whenever one of the government officials was branded a traitor, he would receive a copy of a newspaper article that featured that official, along with a note that he was to rewrite the article with that official omitted.  Now this seems to be happening in reality, except that requests are coming from individuals rather than government ministries.  There must be better ways of handling situations of outdated or erroneous material in our new Internet-centred world.


Who Represents Us?

The other day, I heard part of an interview on CBC radio.  It was with a government official, regarding their relations with native bands.  He said that they had excellent cooperation at the local level, but the native leaders seemed to be bogged down in politics.  My immediate reaction was that the government had bypassed the leaders to deal with the local people directly.  Didn’t these local people elect the leaders to represent them?

When I read Leo Tolstoy’s book A Confession, published in 1882, I noticed that he encountered a similar situation.  Because of his status as a famous writer, Tolstoy was able to speak to leaders of several religious groups in Russia at the time.  He discovered that they had no time to care for the souls of their parishioners because they were busy defending their ecclesiastical territory from other religions.  Is that what’s happening here?

There’s some danger in dealing directly with the people instead of working with their leaders.  The obvious one is duplication of services.  More importantly, they may be dealing with only a portion of the local people, neglecting the others.  There’s also an implicit criticism of the way their leaders were elected.  This type of contact is likely to alienate the leaders.

From time to time, an elected representative seems to believe that they are better than their constituents, and that they know what is best for them better than they do.  In short, they are seen as arrogant.  They are also in great danger in being defeated at the next election.  To be sure, representatives should be better in some respects:  they should be able to represent the consituents better than they can do themselves.  They should also have the humility to rely on the views of their consituents.

It seems to be a general principle that when you examine any situation in detail, it becomes more complex.  In that environment, there are no simple solutions.  There are many different groups of people, many different objectives, and many different motivations.  One group of people cannot speak for everyone.  This principle comes into focus when a government is addressing themselves to people in another country, bypassing the leadership in that country.  They are usually dealing with a dissident group who are opposed to the government.  That might be an accident, but it’s usually the intention.

When should you bypass the leaders to deal directly with the people?  Perhaps it’s when the leaders are truely autocratic, not representing the people at all.  This situation may be revealed when they suppress the opposition or hold one-party elections.  It really requires a rigorous test, one that can withstand independant scrutiny.  After all, it’s easy to fabricate evidence.  In that case, look for an obvious ulterior motive such as access to oil reserves.  It’s complicated because some people or groups always believe that they are neglected by their leaders.  Beliefs like that certainly happen in Canada.  They do need to be considered.  Even just assessing the mood of the people can often be wrong.  Elections are the most reliable means of doing that.

When should you ban an opposition party?  Generally never I’d say, but sometimes this action is legitimate.  I’d restrict it to a fringe group that is employing violence to attain their goals.  A peaceful fringe group, no matter how vocal, will be defeated in the next election.

The best way to avoid all of these problem is to have a functioning democracy where the elected officials do represent the people.  Then just let it work.  As long as ordinary people participate, it will work.



No Lessons, No Morality

I recently read an article by a woman who had given up eating sugar two years previously.  She admitted that she still ate sugar occasionally.  She would share a sugary dessert between her and her two daughters.  Then she stated that sugar should be an occasional treat, as nature intended.  That statement got me thinking.  Perhaps it betrayed a misunderstanding of nature, one that’s all too common.  The only sugary food in nature is fruit.  That must have been what she referred to.  Trees that bear fruit, apple trees for example, don’t do it as an occasional treat for humans.  They do it as a means to disperse their seeds.  The sweet fruit attracts animals, us included, who pick the fruit, eat the pulp, and spit out the seeds all over the place.  That’s the apple tree’s strategy for living and producing more apple trees.  It obviously works for the tree.  In fact, the tree doesn’t care if we eat too much sugar and grow fat; it only cares that its seeds get dispersed.

There are no lessons for us in nature.  Creatures in nature look after themselves alone.  Aesop’s fables may suggest that we model ourselves on one animal and avoid being like another animal, but this is a message for us.  It’s not intended to be an accurate description of the behavior of these animals.  In truth, all possible lessons exist in nature, both positive and negative.  We can always find one that illustrates any story that we wish to tell.

There’s also no morality in nature.  A thousand years ago, people believed that everything in the world had morality, from all animals and plants to even ores ripening in the womb of the earth.  We don’t think that way anymore.  Inanimate objects don’t have morality.  Plants and animals compete with each other.  The ones that are successful in this process will continue in future generations.  There are many different strategies for living, but all of them must work if the plant or animal continues to exist.

We generally like certain animals and see them as morally good.  These are often grazing or browsing animals, ones that eat only plants.  Elephants and rabbits are good examples.  We also like animals that provide for themselves, as in the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.  These animals all have chosen their strategy for living.  All have been successful, although the elephant is the one that may have made the worst choice.

We dislike other animals and see them as morally evil.  These are often predators like lions and tigers.  Of course, most people understand that these animals have to kill in order to eat.  We also see parasites as morally evil.  Parasites inspire feelings of revulsion.  Charles Darwin noted that cats will play with mice before they kill them.  We see this as cruel behavior.  Again, all of these animals have chosen a strategy for living, one that works for them.

Morality is a human concept.  We should not apply it to other creatures, by showing our approval or disapproval of them.  We can, of course, use them as examples, but the morality applies to us, not to the animals.  We have the ability to act in a moral manner.  We have the ability to learn morality from stories told by other people.



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