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Rapid Change

You’ve seen the headlines.  “A new stage of evolution”, says one article.  “Warmest year on record”, says another.  Both of those are meaningless when it comes to evolution or climate change.

The reason is that both evolution and climate change happen over a very long period of time, longer than a human lifetime.  We can see weather, because it changes every day, and because the changes can be very dramatic.  We can’t see climate at all.  It’s just not visible to us.  How could we ever notice one degree of warming over a hundred years, when we get that much warming in an hour every day.  Sure, climate is the long-term average of weather, but it’s just not tangible to us.  Instead, we have to rely on scientists to tell us how the climate is changing.  They study things like the geologic record, or the carbonate content of shells to determine past temperatures.  We can’t do it ourselves.  We only experience weather, a distraction for us, not climate at all.

Likewise, evolution takes place over a long period of time.  Our human species appeared 200,000 years ago, and has been essentially unchanged since then.  Our species is even relatively young as species go.  Many animal species are much older.  We are not going to see evolutionary change in humans in our lifetime.  We may see it in viruses and bacteria because they can go through thousands of generations in a few weeks.  Again, we have to rely on scientists to tell us how species are evolving.  They study the fossil record to determine the timing of evolution and when a particular species split from an ancestral species, and when it became extinct.  Even though the fossil record is scattered and fragmentary, there is plenty of evidence that evolution is the true pathway for long-term change of species.  This sort of change won’t be visible to us.

Rapid change of multi-cellular creatures, on the other hand, is unlikely to be a result of evolution.  There are several other mechanisms that can result in rapid changes within a limited range.  These are all survival strategies, which creatures can employ when necessary.  Indeed, these strategies may have been formed by evolution, as a way for organisms to get their genes into the next generation.  That is the true goal of evolution.

For humans, communication is supremely important.  Even if it is only spoken communication, we can learn from people who have more experience that we do.  With written communication, we can also learn from our ancestors.  The more lessons we have from other people, the more likely we are to survive.

The phenomenon of epigenetics has been in the news lately.  It’s a mechanism by which the mother of an unborn child can affect the biology of the child.  For example, a mother living in an environment where food is in short supply can give birth to a child who is able to thrive in such an environment.  The advantages are clear.

Genetic diversity is another strategy for rapid change.  Creatures that have a wide range of genetic diversity are more likely to survive under difficult conditions.  They can respond quickly, in a generation or two, to severe threats.  Moths can change their colour to better suit the background colour.  Guppies can change their size to escape being eaten by larger fish.  This all happens because the original stock has a range of colours or sizes to begin with.  The same thing holds for any human population.  We fall on a range between tall and short, muscular and swift runner, or any other criteria that you care to name.  Humans have a fairly wide range of genetic diversity.  Cheetas are an example of animals that have quite a narrow range.  I understand that veterinarians can transplant organs between unrelated cheetas without fear of rejection.  Doctors can’t do this with humans.

Finally, we can change rapidly because of our intelligence.  We can employ analogy, for example, to solve a new problem in the same way that we solved a similar problem.  In computer terms, we have replaced hardware with software.  Hardware takes many generations to change.  Software can be changed in an instant.  That’s a powerful technique for survival of the species.

The problem with anything that involves change over a long period of time is that we can’t observe it in action.  Because of this behavior, it’s easy for us to deny that it’s happening at all.  We deny climate change because we can’t see it.  For the same reason, we deny evolution.  They don’t make sense to us, in our short lifetimes.  We have to open our minds to changes that we can’t observe personally.


Cute but Destructive

Yes, they are cute.  Squirrels, I mean.  They’re the finest acrobats, jumping from tree to tree with complete confidence.  Sitting on the ground or perched on a branch, with their furry tails curled up behind them, they make a pretty picture.  We have both red and grey squirrels in my area.  The smaller red squirrels chase away the larger grey ones, but only for a short distance.  Somehow, they still live in harmony.  I have an oak tree in the front yard and another one in the back yard.  Last summer, they had an enormous crop of acorns.  On windy days, you’d risk getting hit by falling acorns if you went too close to them.  Squirrels were scampering all over the yards eating acorns last fall.

A few years ago, when my old garage was still standing, I decided to leave my garage empty for the winter, and park half-way down the driveway.  That way, I only had to shovel snow from half of my driveway.  Many times I looked out the kitchen window to watch the squirrels and their antics.  They would pop down into a tunnel under the snow and disappear.  Some time later, they would pop out of the tunnel and scamper up the oak tree.  It wasn’t until I opened the garage in the spring that I found out what they were doing.  The floor of the garage was littered with acorn shells.  They’d built a nest behind a row of cabinets that sat against one wall.  Their tunnel under the snow dipped down underneath the garage wall.  They had the whole place to themselves all winter.  I had two long extension cords hanging on hooks along the wall.  Both of them had cuts from their sharp little teeth on each loop of cord.  I put tape over the cuts on one of them so that I could use it for my lawn mower, but it didn’t last very long.  Eventually I replaced it with a new cord.  A few years later, I replaced the garage too.  The new one doesn’t have any openings where squirrels can get in.

When I moved in to my house, there was a sun porch on the back.  It was in bad condition, and got worse each year.  I didn’t know how bad it was until I decided to tear it down.  One year, though, I noticed green shoots emerging from the wall behind a cupboard.  When I removed the panel, I discovered that the wall cavity was full of acorns.  Clearly, a squirrel was getting in there.  I put metal over one of the openings.  The squirrel kept getting in.  I put down moth balls.  The squirrel kept getting in.  Finally, I closed up all of the openings with metal.  That kept the squirrel out.  Next came the yellowjacket wasps.  It never ends!  The sun porch had to go.  I only found the carpenter ants when I demolished the sun porch.  Now, there’s a very nice sunroom, gleaming with glass and aluminum, where the sun porch used to be.

My sunroom is built on a deck.  The deck is almost at ground level, with a plastic skirt closing the gap on all three sides.  I did the wiring myself.  There’s a fan with lights hanging from the ceiling, with the wiring inside the metal roof.  On the floor, I put four waterproof outlet boxes, for power, telephone, and ethernet.  All the wiring for them runs underneath the deck, close to the ground.  I expected it to be out of the way and dry under there.  This fall, I was horrified to see a red squirrel shoot across the lawn and under the deck, just squeezing below the plastic skirt.  All that wiring was under there.  Squirrels like to nibble on wiring, to sharpen their little teeth, I understand.  What am I going to do now?  There are several places where the squirrel could slip under the skirt.  I could plug them up with lumber, but the squirrel might just find another.  I certainly want to do it while the squirrel is away from home.  If the squirrel is trapped under there, it will just use its sharp teeth to make a hole in the plastic skirt.  I can fix it properly in the spring, but what do I do now.  Should I just wait for spring and hope that the squirrel avoids the wiring?  Maybe I should remove a section of skirt and introduce one of the neighborhood cats to my deck?  I’m going to try that.


Tiny Computer

Does my toaster have a tiny computer inside it?  I don’t know.  I assume it does.  It has the usual lever that lowers the toast and sends power to the elements.  It also has a control that regulates the shade of the toast, and three buttons.  Each button has a light enbedded within it.  One button is labelled `Cancel’.  The light comes on as soon as I push the lever down.  When I press the button, the lever pops up along with the toast.  The other two buttons control functions.  One press enables the function and lights the light.  A second press disables the function and turns out the light.  One is labelled `Bagel’.  It turns off the middle element so that the bagel toasts only one side.  The other is labelled `Frozen’.  I don’t know what it does.  I’ve never had occasion to use it.

Somewhere inside the toaster must be a controller board.  I’ve never opened it up to see what was on that board, but I can guess.  Consider the inputs and outputs.  The inputs are the lever, the shade control and the three buttons.  Outputs are the three elements, the three lights, and the mechanism that releases the lever.

It would certainly be possible to control the toaster with descrete devices.  The logic is pretty simple.  There has to be a timer on the controller board, taking input from the shade control.  The rest is all switching, based on the three buttons.  Maybe that’s what’s on the controller board.  It’s even simpler to control the toaster with a tiny computer operated by firmware.  All of the inputs and outputs could be sensed or driven by the computer.  The timer could be built entirely in software.  The logic could be entirely in software too.  If anything went wrong, it could be corrected by a simple firmware upgrade.  I’ll bet that’s what’s in my toaster now.  Using a tiny computer is simpler and cheaper.

Several years ago, I noticed the same change in my car.  I got two recall notices.  They sounded pretty serious.  One was a rare condition where rapid shifting between forward and reverse, while the car was stuck in mud or snow, could damage a gear in the transmission.   The other, again a rare condition, could result in excessive carbon buildup in the engine if the car was driven for short distances in cold weather, so that the engine never warmed up.  I remember when I worked at my father’s dealership, that we regularly got change orders from the car company.  They generally required mechanical changes, such as modifications to the valve body of the transmission or to the orifices of the carburetor.

My car was different.  It was operated by many small computers.  Both of the conditions in the recall notices were corrected by firmware upgrades, one for the transmission computer, and one for the engine computer.  The took only a few minutes each.  The service manager told me that he wasn’t sure how long it would take.  “You know how computers are”, he said.  I chuckled at that, but didn’t say anything to him.  After all, I probably knew more than he did about computers.  The upgrade did only take a few minutes each.  Once again, tiny computers are simpler and cheaper than mechanical components.


Construction Site

When I was growing up, there was an empty lot next to our house.  It was the last empty lot on the block.  It must have once been a formal garden.  I remember the plants, tall and dry, standing all over it.  I also remember an archway down the middle, probably covered in vines at one time.  They were all dead too.  There were concrete pillars, with concrete bars across the top.  The concrete was weathered and crumbling when I saw it.  Some of the pillars had fallen over.  Others I was able to push over by hand.

One day, all of that was cleared away, and a new house was under construction.  I watched in fascination, after school.  I recall watching a plumber at work inside the house.  He was melting lead bars in a small pot sitting on top of a blowtorch.  He warned me to keep away from the torch and the lead so that I wouldn’t get burned.  I did as I was told.  When it had melted, he poured the lead into joints in the cast iron drain pipes to seal them.  That was exciting to me.  On weekends, when there were no tradesmen around, I explored the entire construction site.  I didn’t touch any tools that they had left lying around, but I did take a few short pieces of scrap lumber.  After all, I needed them more than they did.

Just a couple of blocks away, I discovered another construction site.  It only had the excavation for a basement, partly filled with water from a rain we had had a few days before.  There was a pipe sticking out of one side of the hole, with a faucet on the end.  It was just above the water level.  When I reached down and turned the handle on the faucet, water came out.  We needed more water in that hole.  The splashing was too visible, though.  That was easy to fix.  I put my foot on the pipe, and pressed it down a bit, until the spout on the faucet was below the water.  A few days later, the water level was much higher, and the faucet had disappeared.  That’s when I decided to build a toy boat.

The boat was just a short piece of wood with a pointed end, and a smaller square piece on top.  I put a model airplane propeller and elastic band on the bottom.  The propeller had the ends cut off so that it looked something like a boat propeller.  Some of my friends and I went over to that water-filled basement to try it out.  It worked really nicely, moving in a wide circle, and drifting to the side when the elastic unwound.  Suddenly, we noticed splashing in the water near the boat.  Workmen on the roof of a nearby house were throwing nails at it.  Everybody was playing in the water!

In those days, anybody could walk onto a construction site.  There were no fences and no locked gates.  Kids like me could play on construction sites.  Parents would be appalled today.  Certainly it was dangerous.  Certainly kids should be kept away from the danger.  Fences and locked gates are a good thing.


Dark Personality

When it comes to books, movies, or plays, most people I’ve spoken to seem to prefer comedies.  I’ve always been different from that.  I prefer a drama or a tragedy to a comedy.  Many people avoid certain books, movies, or plays because they think they might be too depressing.  I like those kinds of entertainment.  I like depressing.  I always say that my personality is different from theirs.  I am concerned, though, that something is wrong with me, just because I am different from most people.

Personality is something that psychology attempts to define.  When I read about the classical greek temperaments, the one that seemed to fit me best was the melancholic temperament, described as analytical and thoughtful.  Similarly, the category in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that seemed to fit me best was ISTJ.  Neither of these have much to do with my preference in books, movies, or plays.

That’s why I was so excited when I saw the “How dark is your personality” page on the BBC web site.  Here was something that was going to tell me exactly what I wanted to know.  It had a series of statements with which I could strongly agree, strongly disagree, or something in between, statements like:

I manipulate people to get what I want.

I associate with people who can help me get what I want.

I tried to respond honestly.  After I finished, it gave me my score.  The range of personality types was from psychopathic killer to angel.  It put me on the side of the angels!  That was a great relief.  My personality was not at all dark, at least according to this test.  My preference for dramas and tragedies, over comedies, was not abnormal after all.  It’s just an individual difference.  It’s a good thing that people are not all the same.  Still, I don’t know what I would have done if it had told me I was a phychopath.


A Good Joke

I told this joke at my Toastmasters club.  I won the prize for best humour that evening.  It’s a prize-winning joke:

You’ve heard of Murphy.  Murphy dropped his toast on the floor.  It landed butter side up.  “It’s a miracle”, said Murphy.  “I have to tell the priest”.

So Murphy told the priest all about his toast, saying “It’s a miracle, isn’t it?”.  “Well, it might be a miracle”, said the priest, “but I have to ask the bishop”.

The priest told the bishop all about Murphy’s toast, saying “It’s a miracle, isn’t it?”.  “It might be a miracle”, said the bishop “but I’m not sure”.  “I’ll have to check with the cardinal”.

So, the bishop spoke to the cardinal, telling him all about the toast.  “It’s a miracle, isn’t it?” said the bishop.  “It might be a miracle, but I’ll have to check with the pope”, said the cardinal.

The cardinal told the pope all about Murphy’s toast, and how it landed butter side up.  He said “It’s a miracle, isn’t it?”.  The pope thought it over for a few minutes.  Then he said “Well, it might be a miracle, but I have a better explanation”.  “Murphy buttered his toast on the wrong side”.


Executor for my Aunt

Shortly after her husband died, my aunt asked me to be the executor for her estate.  I readily agreed, even though I’d never done that, and promptly forgot about the request.  She was a lifelong smoker.  I knew that she had circulation problems, likely caused by smoking.  No doubt her lungs were also affected.

I used to visit her regularly.  She would offer me tea and home-made cake.  We would sit in her favourite room, the sun room she had added to the house.  Later on, she was still delighted to see me, but she didn’t offer me anything to eat or drink.  One day, I got word that she had died in bed.  A friend of hers had found her.  She was feeling sick at the time.  In fact, she was so weak from the illness that she didn’t call for help, even though she only had to press one button on the telephone to call 911.  We didn’t know exactly when she died.  Even the autopsy didn’t give us that information.

My stint as executor had come.  At first, I searched around her house without touching anything.  In her office, on her desk, I noticed an envelope that obviously contained payment for a utility bill.  It was stamped and ready to go.  I dropped it in a post office box on the way home.  Nobody would know that she was dead.  In her desk drawer, I found a folder with my name upon it.  That was shock, like seeing a ghost.  It contained all the information I needed for my new role.  My aunt had been a legal secretary before she got married.  She knew everything that was needed by an executor.  One envelope of the folder even contained five $20 bills, in case I had expenses.  I later deposited them to the estate account.  I also found the name of her lawyer and a hand-written codicil to her will.  The lawyer was surprised at seeing that, but told me that the codicil was properly done, and that it actually simplified the will.

The lawyer was very helpful.  Any time I was not sure what I should be doing, he was there to guide me.  My tasks were to identify all her assets, convert them into cash, and finally to disburse all of the cash to the beneficiaries.  I was to sell the house, also something that I’d never done before.  The lawyer told me that all I had to do was to choose a realtor, and they would look after the sale.  The realtor turned out to be very helpful too.

As I’d never been an executor before, I immediately started keeping a diary of everything that happened concerning my aunt’s estate.  The lawyer suggested that I should convert her personal bank account into an estate account, so that I could deposit money into it, and write cheques on it.  Her bank helped me to do that.  I had the key to her safety deposit box.  One of the bank employees and I reviewed the contents of that.  We found a life insurance policy, taken out in the 1920’s.  The bank employee tossed that on the pile, declaring it to be worthless.  It turned out not to be.  The original insurance company had gone out of business, but another company was paying claims.  Once I submitted the correct documents, they issued me a cheque.  It was a bit spooky depositing that cheque; somebody had to die for me to collect on the policy.

The real estate agent helped me decide what I needed to do to bring the house up to saleable condition.  The house had hardwood floors throughout, with carpets in most rooms.  When I discovered that the large carpet in the living room had an underlay that was stuck to the floor, I decided to leave all the carpets in place.  The furniture all had to be sold, but I wanted to keep some of it in place as long as possible, to make the house look more natural.

The basement floor had many cracks.  They didn’t affect the structure, but the  realtor recommended that we have an engineer inspect the basement anyway.  That would reassure any potential buyer.  Several rooms needed to be painted.  One room had stains on the ceiling.  We decided to add plasterboard panels to the ceiling, before getting that room painted.  Once all the work was done, we were able to put the house on the market.  Still, I shoveled the sidewalk all winter, and showed it to several people who were interested in it.  It finally sold in the spring.

The entire contents of the house went to my mother.  Of course, she didn’t have room for most of the furniture.  I took some of it.  Other relatives took some.  My mother took all of the clothing and many of the small items as well.  The rest I sold.  It’s amazing what people accumulate when they live in a house for many years.  I found a drawer in the kitchen that was full of coins.  One person sent a moving van to pick up several items of furniture.  The sidewalk was clear of snow, but I suppose the movers didn’t want to carry the furniture all the way to the street.  Instead, they smashed through mounds of ice and snow with their truck until they could back up, one set of wheels on the sidewalk, across the boulevard and front lawn, right up to the front steps.  Then, they only needed to extend a ramp right up to the front door, and carry the furniture across it.

It took a long time, longer that I had expected, to get everything sold and the money in the estate account, but finally it was done.  We made a preliminary payment to the 13 beneficiaries, paid the taxes, and then made a final payment.  That was the end of my involvement as executor.  I was glad to do it, but also glad to see the end of it.



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