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Fake News

The other day, I noticed an article posted on a computer security web site that was about fake news.  The author wanted to identify fake news sites and block them.  Perhaps they didn’t realize how difficult it was to identify these sites.  In fact, the article suggested that only Russian sites published fake news, and that only Western sites published accurate news.  It’s actually much more complicated than that.

Search engines are partly to blame for the popularity of fake sites, especially if they rank fake sites higher than the real ones.  I can only speculate why they might do this, but it certainly does happen.  Most of the fake sites seem to be set up only to make money for their owners.  A good example happened recently in Britain.  The government set up a series of web sites to offer free government services to people, usually by filling out an online form.  Then, commercial web sites appeared that provided the same service, but charged people a fee for doing it.  People complained that the commercial sites were listed before the government ones in search engine results, misleading people into using the commercial sites instead of the free ones.  The search engine companies changed their ranking to favour the government sites, in this case, ending the complaints.

It used to be that you could type the model number of any piece of equipment, a monitor for example, into a search engine, and get back a link to the manufacturer’s web site.  There, you would find the user manual, the service manual, and any firmware upgrades that the equipment required.  If you try this now, you will get back a whole list of sites that claim to provide any manual you might need.  Following the link will bring you a whole page of advertizing, with another link to your manual.  That link will bring you another page of advertizing.  Eventually, you will find a link to the manufacturer’s web site.  If the manufacturer no longer provides the manual, it will be a broken link.  Clearly, sites like this are only there to make money for the owner, by selling advertizing space.  They don’t even have their own copy of the manual you need.

There are similar web sites that offer news rather than manuals.  I’ve seen some of them appear in the Google News listings.  The first tip-off that this is a fake news site is the large amount of advertizing that they carry, including small images that are now called clickbait.  The second tip-off is the spelling and grammatical errors in the news articles.  Again, these sites are only money-making vehicles for their owners.  The news articles are only there to attract people to the advertizing.

What about political news?  Can it be biased?  Of course, we all have a personal bias.  We accept information that agrees with our beliefs, and reject information that disagrees with it.  News agencies always have a bias that comes from their point of view.  We should expect that type of bias.  We should take it into account.  Sometimes, however, they seem to all republish as news information that comes from the government.  Uncritical news reporting like that is dangerous, and can easily be reporting of false news.  Most news agencies also do their own independant investigation.  That sort of news is at least more likely to be reliable.  It may be obvious when an agency is exaggerating information or citing it selectively to support their existing beliefs.  Fact checking helps here, but it’s also not perfect.

What they don’t report is also significant.  During World War 1, the British government ordered all of the newspaper editors to report only British victories, but never British defeats.  Readers never knew that the battle of the Somme, for example, was a German victory and a British defeat.  More recently, when hurricane Mathew moved through Haiti, through Cuba, through the Bahamas, and towards the US mainland, we heard news from all of the countries except for Cuba.  Somehow the hurricane skipped over Cuba.  It didn’t, of course.  I had to do a very specific web search to find out what happened there.

So, how do we avoid false news sites?  How do we get accurate information?  Who can we trust?  It’s nobody, when all news sources are biased.  A diversity of news sources helps.  A distant point of view also helps.  I read British news sites to get their view on other parts of the world.  I also occasionally read news sites in Egypt, Pakistan, Australia, and Russia to obtain news stories from within these countries.  It’s probably the best I can do.  When I get completely different information from two source, I assume that they may be both wrong, and that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  A skeptical attitude helps too.


The Lure of Flying

I find that I’m drawn to stories of flying, even though I’ve never been a pilot, and seldom even flown as a passenger.  Why is that?

I was interested in model airplanes when I was a kid.  I built models with balsa wood, tissue paper, piano wire, and rubber bands turning plastic propellors.  Some of them even flew.  One even had an 049 engine.  I recall testing that engine in the basement of our house.  Indoors, it made an aweful noise.  The plane only flew for half a circle before crashing into the ground and shattering into pieces.

My father was a flight instructor in world war 2.  He started off flying a Tiger Moth,  moving on to Harvards and Ansons.  A Tiger Moth, by the way, was a biplane with open cockpits and primitive instruments.  He logged thousands of hours in the air.  He trained thousands of pilots, who went on to fly fighters and bombers in Europe.  I recall hearing him tell many stories of his adventures in the air.

A few years ago, I started running Microsoft flight simulator on my computer.  I learned a great deal about flying during my sessions with that simulator.  I practiced takeoffs, landings, and even stall recovery while I was following their lessons.  Even though I had never flown a real plane, I felt like I had.

I also read all the articles on the web that are about aircraft incidents and crashes.  I’m especially interested in articles about crash investigations.  The official report on a crash often comes out years after the crash.  By that time, the news media have lost interest in the crash, moving on to some new story.  I’m still interested.  I like to find out the official cause of the crash.

I’ve never been a pilot, although I know a few things about flying an aircraft.  I do sometimes fly as a passenger, mostly in large commercial jet aircraft.  I have flown a few times in small propellor planes.  Most recently, I flew from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk in a Twin Beech.  I’ve only flown on a vintage plane once.  This was a short flight on a Douglas DC3, a twin engine plane with a tail skid, built in the 1930s.  I suppose the reason for my interest in flying must come from my interest in Engineering and Technology.  I can’t think what else it would be.


100 Best Movies

The BBC web site recently published a list of the 100 best movies since 2000.  The movies on this list were chosen by critics, not by the viewing public.  Some of them were not box-office successes, even though they made the list.  As well, the movies were chosen from a British and European perspective.  Many popular American movies are notably absent from this list.  Many were recorded in other languages, and come with English subtitles.  The movie rated best of all on this list was Mulholland Drive, a movie that I haven’t seen.

I prefer movies with good stories and well-defined characters.  I don’t like the so-called action movies, with all that shooting, explosions, and car chases.  I don’t mind English subtitles, although I know people who will reject movies as soon as they find out they are in some other language.

I decided to watch some of the movies from this list, reasoning that the critics must have had good reasons for nominating them to the list.  I’d already seen about a third of the movies on this list.  I excluded these, and chose ones that were available on Netflix and also had good reviews on .  Ultimately, I only found six movies that I believed were worth watching.  Here’s what I thought of them:

  • Inside Llewyn Davis: I thought this was a good movie.  I still have an image of Llewyn Davis with a guitar case in one hand and an orange cat in the other.  Of course, I was a folkie in the 60s, so I’m predisposed to like this movie.  I did wonder at first why some of the songs were so bad, and why I used to like them.  Eventually, I realized that the bad performances were intentional.  The songs got better later in the movie.
  • The Master: I watched this movie twice, wondering what I missed the first time through.  There were two main characters.  Philip Seymour Hoffman played a charismatic cult leader, based on L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame.  Joaquin Phoenix played a hard-drinking loner.  Hard-drinking was an understatement.  Only Hoffman’s character had faith in Phoenix’ character.  The others saw him as a trouble-maker and a sham.  At the very end of the movie, we discovered that he was longing for his lost love, as Changing Partners played in the background.
  • Blue Is the Warmest Color: This movie was in French with English subtitles.  The main character was a high-school girl.  The other was older, in art school, and had blue hair.  It was a long movie, with a great deal of dialogue.  I thought it was a good movie, one that explored the relationship between the two young women.  Even though the world of women that young was foreign to me, I liked the movie.
  • Leviathan:  This one is in Russian with English subtitles.  It’s set in a small village north of Moscow.  I was amazed at the amount of vodka that people drank.  There was a picnic scene where several men took turns shooting at empty bottles.  They had to drink one glass of vodka if they hit the target and three glasses if they missed.  The movie was really about corruption in government, and one man’s losing fight against it.  I thought it was a good movie, although I also found it disturbing.
  • Inception: This movie was supposed to be about implanting false memories and false beliefs into world leaders, but it quickly turned into one of those action movies, complete with shooting, explosions, and car chases.  I didn’t like all of that violence.  For me, it also obscured the plot.  All in all, I found it to be confusing, with excessive violence.
  • Under the Skin: This was supposed to be a science fiction movie.  Indeed, it was about a beautiful woman who was only a skin with an alien creature inside.  There was lots of nudity, mostly male.  Men sank into a mysterious liquid where they died and dissolved.  This happened over and over again.  I found the whole thing tedious as well as confusing.  It seemed like a student project, not a professional movie.  I kept wondering if they recorded the whole thing with one camera.  I don’t know how this one made the list.


Journalism Student

Recently, I was having lunch at a local coffee shop, when a young woman approached me, and asked if she could sit at my table.  She explained that she was a student in journalism at a local college, and wanted to interview me.  I said “Certainly”, and told her that that sounded like a joke I knew.  She said “It does, doesn’t it”.  I didn’t tell her the joke, but here it is for your enjoyment:

This fellow was in a bar, sitting at a table by himself, when a young and attractive woman approached him.  She asked if she could sit at the table with him.  Of course, he agreed.  They chatted for a bit.  Then he said “Can I buy you a drink?”.  She said in a loud voice “A motel?”.  Then, he told her that he didn’t understand why she said that because he was only asking if he could buy her a drink.  In reply, she said, again in a loud voice, “You want to take me to a motel?”.  At that, he shrunk down and tried to hide in his chair.  She got up and walked away.

He noticed that this woman was sitting at another table near the back of the bar, and seemed to be writing something.  Then she reappeared at his table, saying “I hope I didn’t alarm you there.  You see, I’m a psychology student, and I’m studying how people react in unexpected situations.”.  He replied, in a loud voice “A hundred dollars?”.

Well, she didn’t do that, but she did explain that her assignment was to interview people about first loves and regrets.  I told her that that was quite a personal topic.  She agreed that it was.  She first took my full name and my age, entering it into her phone.  She told me that I didn’t look that old.  I suppose that’s a good way to flatter the person that you’re interviewing.  Then she talked with me, recording our conversation on her phone.  I told her about my first love, way back when we were just children.  I couldn’t recall her name.  I also explained that the only influence this girl had on me was to shape the type of woman that seemed most attractive to me.  I also spoke about regrets, mostly to say that I didn’t have any.  All of us make mistakes.  All of us would do things differently if we had the chance.  We generally don’t have that chance.  For me, those thing are in the past.  I may recall them, but I don’t dwell on them, I told her.  She finished the interview by taking my picture with real camera, not with here phone.

I had just been watching the movie The Master.  In that movie, we find out that one of the characters was longing for his first love, even though he had abandoned her years earlier.  He was caught in a situation of his own making, a situation that could not be resolved.  I don’t want to be like that.


International Agreements

International agreements are all over the news recently.  The trade agreement between Canada and the EU is almost completed.  Canada and China are beginning talks that will lead to a trade agreement between them.  The US is negotiating a trade agreement with the EU.  The TTP is coming.  It’s a multi-lateral agreement between the US and many Asian countries that are friendly with the US.  China is notably absent from this agreement.  NAFTA, a trade agreement negotiated many years ago between Canada, the US, and Mexico, has been the subject of complaints recently.  What’s going on?

I’m in favour of free trade between countries, at least in principle.  I also oppose tariff barriers and subsidies, in principle, because they constitute unfair competition between countries.

Did you notice that the recent agreements are not called free trade agreements, but just trade agreements.  That’s because they sometimes restrict trade, rather than make it more free.  One thing that western countries try to do is to spread their intellectual property laws (patent, copyright, and trademark laws) to other countries.  These laws often grant monopoly powers to companies that hold these properties.  As well, trade agreements may preserve subsidies or preserve import quotas on certain products.  This is not free trade in all aspects, but does facilitate trade between countries.

One feature of trade agreements that’s new to me is that they are negotiated in secret.  Why is this?  What are they trying to hide?  The problem with secret agreements is that many people will be dissatisfied with them when they are finally made public, but by then it’s too late to change anything.  The news media can only speculate about what one country had to give up while negotiations are in progress.  I have no doubt that ordinary people understand that their country must have both gains and losses in such an international agreement.  Even then, the agreement must benefit the majority of the people.  If it doesn’t, there will be a great deal of opposition within the country.  Secrecy is not appropriate for such an important undertaking.

Will there be job losses?  Of course.  There have always been job losses.  Companies always seek to reduce labour costs.  Unrelated to trade agreements, they have introduced automation, division of labour, and self-service to reduce their labour costs.  They had to do this to remain competitive with other companies.  With trade agreements, products are often made in other countries where labour costs are lower.  Even some services can now be done in other countries.  This is bound to happen.

Of course, trade agreements lead to globalization.  Globalization can be an excuse for economic domination by one country.  People in one region of a country, or in an entire country, can see it as something imposed on them by some other country.  It can be Americization or Westernization.  Trade agreements have to prevent economic domination by one of the parties to the agreement.

It’s also important to maintain the national identity of each country.  This requires exceptions to the general rule of free trade.  In particular, local culture must be protected.  Cultural industries must be protected.  National policies must be respected by trade agreements.

Recent trade agreements allow legal action by producers in one country against restrictions imposed by another country.  Of course, this can be an enforcement mechanism for the agreement.  It can also be misused to break down national policies such as protection of the environment.  Such things that need to be protected have to be part of the agreement.  Then, special courts can be fair in the face of legal actions.

Yes, trade agreements can be beneficial to all countries involved, and to people in regions within those countries.  Negotiating such an agreement requires that people take on the viewpoint of another country, and do this as friends and not as adversaries.  This is not an easy thing to do.  I can understand why negotiations may go on for years in many cases.


A Healthy Diet

I recently read an article on the Mediterranean diet.  The upshot of it is: the Mediterranean diet doesn’t exist.  It’s what people in the Mediterranean region ate 100 years ago.  Now they eat the same food that everybody in western countries eats.  The Mediterranean diet is only something that people can aspire to now.  The article states that it consisted mainly of a great deal of vegetables with very little red meat.  The food was served in several courses, but in small portions each time.  We don’t eat that way anymore.

I also read about the famous chef Escoffier recently.  He brought flavour to food, with sauces and gravies, and serving food hot.  He also served food in many courses.  People didn’t feel stuffed at the end of a meal because each course had small portions.  We don’t eat that way anymore either.

A couple of years ago, I read about a new restaurant chain moving into this city.  It was in the business news.  It said that this restaurant chain competed in the market for large portions of food at reasonable prices.  I have eaten there a few times.  The food is good, but the portions are indeed enormous.

What is it about portion size anyway?  I have a limited capacity for food.  I don’t like to feel stuffed.  Consequently, I prefer small portions.  I also try to eat everything on my plate.  I order from the senior’s menu if the restaurant has one.  Often it’s impossible for me to find something small enough.  I know that people in my group often groan when they see how large the portions are.  I know that some of them order from the appetizer menu.  Don’t these places know what people want?  Don’t they know that eating too much is the main cause of obesity.

Courses too seem to have disappeared, at least courses in the style of the Mediterranean diet, or in the style of Escoffier.  Now the whole thing comes on one large plate.  Doing it that way is easier on the kitchen staff.  Serving an entire meal, exclusive of appetizer and desert courses, on a single plate seems to have become the norm.  I know that upscale restaurants do serve food in courses, but I’m reluctant to try them now because I’m sure I’d be way too full.

Why are portions so large?  Clearly it’s because that’s what many people expect.  I suppose they want good value for their money, and only feel they are getting that when they are served that much food.  No doubt some people eat it all too.  I certainly couldn’t do that, and would not want to be able to do that.

The only place, outside of my home, where I’ve seen small portions of food served is at my parent’s senior’s home.  The soup comes in a tiny bowl that’s only slightly larger than the soup spoon.  When you ask for eggs at breakfast, you get one egg.  Their sandwiches are thin enough to actually fit in your mouth.  These portions are perfect for the people who live there because most of them are quite inactive.  Indeed, many of them ask for half portions at meal times.  You can also ask for double portions, although I’ve never seen people do that.

Why can’t restaurants serve small portions too?  The food may look wonderful.  It may be full of flavour.  I may even enjoy eating it, but my impression is spoiled by the feeling that I’ve eaten too much.


The American Dream

I was just reading an article about the Great Paradox in American politics.  The article described Louisiana as the most polluted state in the US.  It illustrated the paradox by questioning why both ordinary people there and companies operating there are supporting Donald Trump.  After all, these companies polluted the land and water of the state, and mistreated their workers at the same time.  One of the reasons for the paradox was that ordinary people saw the federal government, particularly the EPA in this case, as a foreign organization, one that only causes trouble for them.  The other reason was that these people still believed in the American dream, and found any attempt to take that away from them as unfair treatment.

The dream was that anyone could make a better life for themselves and their children simply by working hard.  They could do this without help from anyone else.  They could make a million dollars, or even a billion dollars, just through their own efforts.  Many successful people have claimed that they did it all themselves, often by starting a business.  I once read that ordinary Americans voted against higher taxes for the rich because they all believed they would be rich one day.  This is clearly impossible.  They can’t all become rich.  More than 99% of them will stay the way they were.  Only a very few of them can become rich.  It’s like buying lottery tickets all of your life, in the expectation that one day you will win.  You read about lottery winners all the time, but it’s never you.  The odds of you winning the lottery are still vanishingly small, just like the odds of being successful in the American dream.

I recently read a biography of Ben Franklin.  He was an advocate of the American dream, and used himself as an example.  He was a printer.  He made his fortune by operating a print shop in Philadelphia.  He said that everybody should do that.  Of course, he had the only print shop in Philadelphia.  He had no competition in that business.  I don’t know how many people there were in Philadelphia at the time.  Let’s say 10,000.  That makes him not 1% but 0.01% of the population.  Clearly it would be impossible that everyone could do the same as he did.  The vast majority of people have to be employees.  Only a very few can become successful in a business like Ben Franklin did.

We have the same paradox with the fisheries in Canada.  It’s easy to understand.  Whenever fish stocks are threatened by over fishing, scientists at the Fisheries Department recommend closing the fishery to allow stocks to recover.  People in the fishing industry will lose their jobs if the fishery closes.  In that situation, officials in the Fisheries Department have always disregarded their own scientists and chosen to preserve jobs instead.  Environmentalists outside of the region have been shocked at the decision.  Which is right?  Do we preserve jobs?  Do we preserve a way of life?  Do we destroy these things to preserve the fish instead?  Maybe there is no right decision in this case.