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Simple Answers

Some of the political party leaders are promising to balance the budget if they win the next election.  Is this really necessary?  It’s actually a false analogy, a victory for the conservatives.  They have convinced people that the budget of a country is just like the budget of an individual household, only larger.  It makes the concept simpler, but unfortunately, it’s false.  They’ve also convinced people that balancing the budget every year is a sign of a fiscally responsible government.  Some parties even promise legislation that will require the next government to balance the budget every year.  That promise no doubt appeals the convinced, but it only codifies the false analogy.

Some branches of economics, Keynsian in particular, recommend using the budget to control the economy.  Running a deficit with increased government spending stimulates a weak economy.  Likewise, running a surplus with increased taxes retards an economy that is too strong.  Doing it right requires predicting the future, always an error-prone task.  In the long run, the deficits and surplusses still must balance out.

There is some truth to the requirement for the government to balance the budget every year.  That’s because deficit financing is an easy way for governments to raise money.  They can please the voters by spending money while not raising taxes at the same time.  Of course, doing that for a long time will anger the voters, bringing an end to any government that tries it.

Job creation is something that all parties promise to do these days.  How they propose to do it is the part that differs.  Beware if they say that small business is the job creation engine of the economy.  This is partially true, but small business is also the job destruction engine of the economy.  Many small businesses are short-lived, hiring people initially, but throwing them all out of a job when the business fails.  Once you correct job creation for job destruction, their job creation rate becomes similar to that of large business.  Mostly, this statement is an excuse to subsidize businesses or to deregulate them.  It’s these two government practices that you should evaluate when you hear about how valuable small business is.

Generally, the extremist groups have simple stories to promote and simple answers to all questions.  That’s because they tell only one side of the story.  The world’s more compicated for moderate groups.  They must consider many viewpoints.  They don’t have simple answers.  Instead, they must try to find a balance between the benefits to some and the losses to others, for any action they undertake.

The other danger is in ideologies, principles based around a single idea.  They too are a source of simple answers.  Reality is not that simple.  It’s complex.  Solutions to problems require consideration and judgement.  That’s why all ideologies are false.  There are no simple answers.  The difficult path is the correct one to chose.


Car Wash Crash

This happened a long time ago.  It wasn’t with my first car, but with my second.  It was a gold-coloured Oldsmobile Cutlass, a beautiful car.  I took it to a car wash near my home.

It was the old style of car wash, where they hitch your car onto a moving train, and pull it along through the building.  The sign said to stop your car at a certain point, shift into neutral, and then not to touch the brakes or the steering wheel.  My Cutlass had a floor shift that was not very accurate.  It was quite noisy inside the car wash.  I thought I shifted into neutral.  My car moved forward just as it normally did in that type of car wash.  I heard a bang.  I stomped on the brake pedal.  The attendant shouted “neutral!”.  I pulled the shift lever back a notch.  I guessed that the bang was him pounding on the hood to alert me of my mistake.

After that, the wash proceeded normally.  When I drove my car out of the car wash, though, there was another car stopped in front of me.  The driver came up to me and said “You hit my car”.  I said “I did?”.  We looked at both of the cars.  There was no damage on my front bumper.  I didn’t see any damage on the rear bumper of his car, either.  We did exchange information, just in case we found damage later.  I did not like this situation at all.  I went there to clean my car, but had an accident instead.  I felt dejected.  My inaccurate shift lever had never been a problem before.  It certainly was then.

When I went to our local public insurance corporation to report the accident, something I’d never done before, I was surprised that the agent treated it so lightly.  He burst out laughing with every word I said.  He thought the whole thing was hillarious.  I suppose they don’t get many accidents like that one.  Still, I didn’t see the humour.  It was a serious incident to me.

About a week later, a policeman came to my door.  He asked me if I was involved in the accident.  I said I was, but that I thought I didn’t have to report it to the police if it was under $200 damage.  It was over that, he told me.  That was a surprise to me.  I didn’t see any damage.  However, I said I would report it to the police the next day.  When I went down to a local police station to make a report, the policeman behind the counter filled out a form on a typewriter.  He did the typing with two fingers.  I’d never seen anyone do that before.  Every once in a while, he would backspace over a word and type Xes to cover it up.  Filing the report took ages with all that two-finger typing.  I don’t recall the resolution of this accident, but I’m sure I had to pay at least part of the cost of repairs.

I’ve never told anyone of this incident before.  In fact, I still get an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach just thinking about it, even though it happened many years ago.  There must be some unresolved issues there for me, although I can’t guess what they might be.  I suppose it was the failure on my part.  The result was that events didn’t turn out at all the way I had planned.  I do strive to be perfect.  This was an instance where I was far from that.


Fixing Software

Yes, I’m a software developer.  Before I retired, I was a system administrator specializing in Solaris.  Part of what I did then was software development for our local Solaris installation.  I also did some for opensolaris, the development version of Solaris 11.  What appealed to me at that time was that full source of opensolaris was available to developers, along with all of the bug reports.  Opensolaris was an open source project originated by Sun Microsystems.  It was closed again by Oracle when they took over Solaris.

After I retired, I decided to continue with things I enjoyed, even though I was no longer being paid to do them.  I now had the freedom to turn down things that I didn’t enjoy.  I didn’t need the money or the aggravation.  One of the things I kept doing was software development, this time with illumos, an operating system derived from the last version of opensolaris.  Full source and bug reports are available for illumos, too.  Like opensolaris, it’s not a complete operating system, but the kernel and utilities for one.  Various groups build their own distributions from the illumos source.

I generally start with a bug report, either one from somebody else, or one that I filed previously.  Usually I avoid bugs in the kernel, as I prefer to leave those to somebody with expertise in that area.  I also avoid drivers, unless I have the hardware available for testing.  I generally choose a bug report for one of the illumos utilities.

The first thing I have to do is to reproduce the problem.  This is quite a difficult proposition in some cases.  Sometimes the bug has been fixed by a previous change.  Sometimes it’s no longer relevant.  If it’s still present and I can reproduce it, my next step is to fix the bug.  Again, this may be easy or very difficult, depending on the nature of the bug.  I have to assess relevant standards at this point, too.

Once I have a reasonably good fix, I proceed to post it for a code review by the other developers.  Sometimes they may have a fundamental objection to my change.  In that case, I generally can’t proceed with the bug.  More often they will point out additional changes I need to make that will improve my fix.  When all of the reviewers are satisfied with my fix, I can proceed to the final step.  This is integration into the illumos source.  It’s also my reward for carrying the whole thing through satisfactorily.

I do get a great deal of pleasure from software development, even though it can be a tedious and frustrating process at times.  I particularily enjoy devising a solution to a software problem, as well as eliminating one more bug from a large source distribution.  I do have to limit the amount of time I devote to illumos.  I don’t want it to dominate my life, but I do want it to become an excellent operating system.  Fortunately, there are many other developers.  Many of them are able to make considerably larger changes and additions than the ones I’m able to contribute.


Maps of Meaning

One book that I’ve read many times is by Jordan Peterson.  It’s called Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.  This book is extremely wide-ranging, covering aspects of psychology and aspects of religion.  At first I believed that once I had read it, I could summarize it in a few paragraphs.  I’ve never been able to do this.  It’s scope is just too large.  Nevertheless, I have incorporated some of its ideas into my own understanding of myself and other people.

The book actually contains a good summary, in the form of a letter that the author wrote to his father.  In this letter, the author explains what he had been doing for the past seven years.  He had been attempting to answer a number of questions.  One of these questions was why we still follow the principles of a religion that we no longer believe in.  Another is what prevents us from killing another person.  The letter includes brief answers to these questions, although they are described in much greater detail in the rest of the book.

The basic idea is that our beliefs determine our actions.  I already understood this aspect of the mind.  The author focuses on the origin of our beliefs, explaining that some of them are hundreds of years old.  These beliefs have been passed down to us through many generations of ancestors.

Our morality is simply the rules for living our life, rules that we have acquired from many different sources.  They are based on our beliefs, of course.  They are our actions.  They are how we affect other people and society as a whole.

We describe the world, including ourselves and other people, in terms of stories.  The simplest story contains three elements: the unbearable present, the desired future, and a way to transform one into the other.  The book presents many such stories, as well as how a story can be disrupted or destroyed entirely.  Because of an obstacle we sometimes have to re-evaluate our path or our goal.  Sometimes our whole world is turned upside down, making our story irrelevant.  In this case, we have to rebuild ourselves to create a new present before we can proceed to imagine the rest of the story.

Mythology is a major part of the book, especially creation myths from various cultures.  Ideas and symbols from ancient cultures are carried forward and incorporated into new cultures and religions.  The most common story from mythology is a story of the fall and the resurrection, where a person’s whole life is destroyed; they construct a new life from fragments of the old one and continue from there.

The book introduces three mythological figures that are common to many religions and cultures.  All three have both beneficial and destructive aspects.  The figure of the Great Mother symbolizes nature, providing life and nurture to people.  The Great Father symbolizes culture, providing protection.  The Divine Son is the explorer, the one who provides new knowledge.

There’s so much to absorb that I can’t take it all in, especially with my skeptical nature.  I can understand it all.  It all makes sense.  Still, only some of the ideas presented in this book have become a part of me.


Balance Failing

About a year ago, I joined the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, as a participant.  At the beginning, I went to a local hospital for a series of physical and mental tests.  One that surprised me was simply to time how long I could stand on one foot.  I had never done that before.  They let me practice a bit and told me how I could do it.  Even then, I had to stop myself from falling after only a few seconds.  I certainly didn’t expect to do so badly on that test.

I do ballroom dancing.  I thought I was pretty good on my feet.  I was puzzled when another dancer told me that he wanted to learn ballroom dancing before his balance went.  He told me that balance was the first thing you lose as you get older.  I suppose that’s true.  As I became more aware of my own balance while dancing, I did notice that there were times that I felt I was falling over.  My instructor told me that whenever I was unstable on the dance floor, it was because I was landing wrong, or not maintaining my posture.  I suppose that’s true too.

My mother, who is 95, just started using a walker.  She said she felt more secure that way.  I suppose that’s right for her, but I don’t like that idea in general.  I recall that she also told me that seniors learn how to fall, so as to avoid injury or broken bones.  Somebody being interviewed on the radio said that learning how to fall is useless because falls happen so quickly that you don’t have time to do what you have learned.  He said it was better not to fall, and being agile on your feet was the way to avoid falls.  Ballroom dancers are certainly agile on their feet.  That sounded like a good idea to me.  How could I improve my balance?

Then I read an article on the web that promoted a series of exercises that were done while standing on one foot.  You repeat it on the other foot, of course.  That type of exercise sounded good to me immediately.  They were supposed to improve balance and strengthen bones at the same time.  I started by just standing on one foot.  At first, I had a falling sensation almost immediately, and had to save myself by putting down the other foot.  Soon though, I found I could stand on one foot for a much longer time.  This was going to be easy.  My dance instructor told me that I could have held on to something with my hand while I was standing on one foot.  I didn’t need to do that.  I was already doing so well without support.  I’d have no trouble with the next CLSA test.

The only problem was that I was no longer improving.  Now it became more difficult.  I was going to have to do that exercise more frequently, until I was satisfied with the result.  I did try moving my free leg around while I stood on one foot.  I was surprised that I could do that and still maintain my balance.  Still, I needed to develop the muscles that were working to keep me upright on one foot.  Repetition had to be the key.  Improvement would be slower now, but it was certainly still possible.  I even tried moving myself up and down while standing on one foot.  That’s something dancers need to do anyway.  It’s also a dangerous addition, one that I needed to be careful with.  The main thing for me was to become comfortable on one foot for some length of time.  I’m sure I can do that.


Junk Mail

I used to receive a free weekly newspaper along with two bundles of flyers.  These were delivered by a local distribution company.  This all stopped when that company was taken over by a daily newspaper that also distributed flyers.  I understand that subscribers to the daily paper still got the weekly paper and the flyers.  I never subscribed, so I didn’t get either.  I suppose that’s called “buying out the competition”.  I had enjoyed reading the weekly newspaper.  Most of the flyers went quickly into my blue cart.

I still got a few flyers with my mail delivery, but that was it.  One day I arrived home to discover an inspector from Canada Post walking down my driveway.  She had already checked my mailbox but found it empty.  She asked me if I had received a particular flyer.  I replied that I thought so, but it would have gone directly into my blue cart.  She told me I could stop flyers if I wanted, and that there were instructions on the Canada Post web site on how to do this.  At that time, I didn’t do anything because I had no reason to stop those few flyers.

About a year later, I found a reason.  Canada Post announced that they were ending home delivery of mail, over the next few years.  I’d have to pick up my mail at a group mailbox instead, maybe a block away from my house.  I didn’t want to go there only to get those unwanted flyers.  I get very little real mail anyway.  Picking it up two or three times a week would be plenty for me.  The amount can only decrease in the future.  My utility bills are all delivered on the web or by e-mail already.

When I looked at the Canada Post web site, I quickly discovered that they don’t call it flyers or junk mail, even though that’s what most people call it.  Instead, they call it ad mail, or unaddressed ad mail.  Their web site had many pages for senders of ad mail.  That makes sense, since ad mail is an important source of revenue for Canada Post.  I only found two pages for receivers of ad mail, like myself.  I expected to find some way to request that they stop ad mail to my mailbox on that site, but instead they advised me to attach a sign to my mailbox.  The postman would see that sign, the web page advised me, and would notify Canada Post to stop the ad mail.  I learned from other sites that Canada Post would ask me periodically to remove the sign and begin accepting ad mail again, just in case I made a mistake, or really wanted that advertizing.  It’s no mistake.  I hate advertizing.

I checked a couple of local home supply stores.  Both had small and very nice self-adhesive signs in the two to three dollar range.  They both read “No Junk Mail”.  I couldn’t find one that said “No Flyers” or “No Ad Mail”, but I suppose the message is the same.  I bought one and stuck it on my mailbox.  It was surprisingly effective.  After one day, the flyers stopped.  Later I did find a couple of items in my mailbox that looked like flyers, but both had my name and address printed on them.  I suppose Canada Post considers them to be real mail.  Both of them went into my blue cart very quickly.

All in all, I’m very pleased with my decision.  It only took me about a week to stop looking forward to a mail delivery, only to be disappointed when it was all advertizing.  I may miss out on the occasional special offer, but the absence of junk mail makes it all worthwhile.


Too Much Concrete

This happened many years ago, when I was just a boy, when I believed that my father knew everything.  He wanted to build a patio floor, from poured concrete,  in the back yard.  He gave me the task of preparing the site.  I dug out the area, levelled it off, and put in the forms.  I’d never done that before, but it seemed pretty simple to me.

Then he asked me to calculate the amount of concrete that we needed.  That seemed pretty simple too.  I measured the size of the form and the depth.  It worked out to just under one cubic yard.  When I told my father that, he said that he would order a yard and a half, just to be safe.  He knew everything.  I was a little worried.

The patio was to go in our back yard, next to the garage.  Our yard was separated from the back street by a stone wall.  The patio was close to the stone wall too.  When the truck arrived, we asked the driver if he could pour the concrete over the wall.  “No problem”, said the driver.  He set up his chutes, and began dumping it into our new patio.  We were spreading it with rakes and shovels.  The concrete kept coming.  Pretty soon it was way over the top of the forms.  “Stop”, we yelled.  The driver stopped the flow.  “Where should I put the rest of it?”, asked the driver.  “Dump it outside the wall”, was all we could say.  The driver was satisfied with that.  He dumped it there, and drove away.

We had a problem.  The concrete was setting quickly.  We were supposed to be smoothing it off at that point, but it was way too high.  We had to get it down to the forms somehow first.  We had to shovel it away as quickly as possible.  Wet concrete is really heavy!  We tried shoveling it over the wall, but gave up that idea after two tries.  Instead, we built a pile of concrete inside the yard, racing against time.  Wet concrete is really heavy!  It was exhausting work, but we finally got it down to the top of the form.  My father asked me to make the pile more attractive.  We sure weren’t going to move it.  “Make it into a bird bath”, he suggested.

We did get a patio floor, although one that was not very smooth on top.  We also had a big pile along side it, a pile that just might have been a bird bath.  I learned a few lessons too.  Never doing that again was the big one.  I also learned that my father didn’t know everything, and that I sometimes had a better way of doing things.



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