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Family Unit

It’s been all over the news lately: foreign students are crammed into houses near the university.  These are rooming houses in all but name.  Neighbors have complained.  Actually, most of the complaints came from one neighbor.  Most of them were about one house, a former fraternity house.  The students were quiet and inoffensive, but neighbors could identify the houses by their unkempt yards, and of course by the numbers of students going in and out.

The owner of one house stated that it complied with all the regulations for single-family homes.  The house had three kitchens, one on each floor.  Many students lived there.  The city also responded to the publicity.  It confirmed that the house complied with the zoning regulations for a single-family house.  However, the councellor for the area claimed that the house was obviously not complient, and that more and better inspections were needed.

The bylaw for single-family homes states that the house must be occupied by one family unit.  What’s that anyway?  It can’t be limited to a married couple and their children.  That would leave out too many families.  It has to be broader than that.  The city defines a family unit as a group of people living together, with one person being responsible for paying the rent.  Maybe that’s too broad?

Housing, at least in new developments, is mostly single-family homes.  They are required to have some percentage of multiple-family homes, even though these are opposed by the developers and by the home owners.  Developers make more money from single-family homes; they’d prefer to have nothing but them.  Home owners believe that multi-family homes lower the value of their own homes by attracting undesirable people to their neighborhood.  They also maintain standards for yards;  they will complain about people who don’t mow their grass or remove their weeds.

Students, of course, like to stay near the university.  Many students live in room and board.  That’s a good arrangement for all concerned.  That’s what I did for the first couple of years that I attended university.  Boarding one or two students doesn’t seem to cause any problems with the neighbors.  I’ve also heard of a group of students getting together to rent a house.  This would be a house that’s normally rented to a family.  As long as the students were well-behaved, I’m sure the owner would be happy to rent the house to them.  What’s the difference?  Nothing, according to the city’s definition of a family unit.

I’d say that this is a minor problem, and not one that will be solved by tougher regulations.  Maybe that’s why it disappeared so quickly from the news.  Of course, the house that stirred up the complaints had three kitchens.  Should we regulate the number of kitchens?  Some houses have a separate suite with its own kitchen.  How about bathrooms?  How about bedrooms?  Do we really want to regulate all these things?  Doing that sounds way too complicated to me.  I don’t want to live in that sort of neighborhood.


Freedom of Information

Should government information be kept secret?  Should it be made public?  I suppose there are valid reasons for keeping it secret, strategic reasons or personal reasons for example.  There’s also information that should be made public.  Governments should not be engaging in political activity and keeping that secret, for example.

Journalism is one way that government information could be made public.  It’s also a fair way, since news media occupy different places in the political spectrum.  However, I just read about an example of how the Government of Canada controls and limits information flow to journalists.  It reminds me of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984.  Journalists should develop contacts within government.  They should conduct interviews with government officials and hold press conferences with them.  If any of these conduits are blocked, government could well be too secret for the good of the public.

Recently, the Freedom of Information request has been the only way to get information out of government.  It does provide a strong legal framework and present an obligation to government departments and agencies.  Perhaps it’s even fairer than before.  However, my impression is that it’s also used as a way to conceal information from journalists and the public.

Then we have statements made to the press on condition of anonymity.  How can we judge the accuracy of this information, or the motives of this anonymous person?  We have to trust the journalist in this case.  There is nobody else.  No doubt the statement was approved by somebody in government before it was released.

What about leaks?  How many of them are real?  How many of them are fabricated to look like leaks?  The US government has been prosecuting leakers lately, in spite of public sentiment and legislation that favours whistle-blowers.  They seem to want you to turn in your colleagues, but not your bosses.  Of course, if somebody within government is sufficiently aggrieved and sufficiently motivated, one of the remedies open to them is to leak the information.  This will always happen, in the absence of better remedies.

The trend recently seems to be for governments to get into the business of publishing information.  They build up their public relations department, and decree that all information given to journalists and to the public must come from this department.  They’ve long send out press releases, of course.  Now they are putting information on their web sites, and even producing video clips.  It’s bound to be self-serving.  News media that are in a hurry or that have limited funds may be tempted to use this information, even though they couldn’t confirm it.

The ultimum in information seems to be Wikileaks.  Here we find out that governments say one thing in public but another thing in private.  Of course, they claim that everybody does it.  Is everybody deceitful?  I certainly hope that most countries are open and honest.  In practice, all countries act in their own self-interest, even if that conflicts with the principles they espouse.

Spies may obtain the same information as Wikileaks, but they keep it secret.  They can’t let their target know that they’ve been spied upon.  Sometimes they can’t even act on their secret knowledge because doing that may reveal their knowledge.  This is a shadowy world of secret knowledge.  It’s completely opposite to public access to information.  It’s a type of access that must be avoided.


Canadian TRC

The Truth and Reconcilliation Commision just released the executive summary of their final report.  This summary is almost 400 pages, but it’s worth reading.  The abuse of Canadian Indians in residential schools is well documented there.  Theodore (Ted) Fontaine’s book Broken Circle describes his residential school experiences in more detail.

I’ve been comparing the Canadian Truth and Reconcilliation Commision with what I know of the South African body of the same name.  The two have some history in common.  The policy to deprive native people of their language, culture, and religion seems to have been the main one.  This may be abhorrent today, but it was the approach taken by all colonial governments in the recent past.

In the South African case, it was the native African majority that was abused by the Boer and British minorities.  After the African National Congress took power, and Nelson Mandela became president, the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission was formed to investigate this abuse.  At the time, it was still a recent memory for all people involved.  The commission had a broad scope, providing a platform for reconcilliation.  It heard from both victims and perpetrators of abuse.  Many of their stories were painful just to listen to.  Their commission did much to bring the two sides together.

The Canadian case was different.  In Canada, the native people were a minority.  European immigrants and settlers, and their descendants were the majority.  These people, to a large extent, also formed the government.  Most of the abuse happened 50 or 100 years ago.  Memories are fading, even when they are passed along to younger generations.  The Truth and Reconcilliation Commision had a narrow scope, mostly focusing on residential schools.  Most of the people who told their stories to the commision are victims of residential school policies.  The people who devised these policies are all dead now.  The commission’s report is really a plea for reconcilliation, along with a series of actions that need to be taken to achieve this.  It will be interesting to see if the government will follow the path mapped out in the report.

No doubt there will be many detractors of this report and its recommendations.  The more extreme of them will say that it’s just another waste of money.  They’ll say that they are not responsible, because it all happened in the past.  They’ll say that Indians don’t deserve a better life, because it’s their fault.  No doubt they’ll say the same thing about any poor people.  They certainly won’t be interested in reconcilliation.

As far as I can see, the only thing the two commissions have in common is the name.  The Canadian one brings hope for the future, along with a plea for reconcilliation.  I wish I were more optimistic, but I only see lots of talk with little action coming up.  At least the report points the way to reconcilliation.


Taking Risks

I learned a few things in all my years as a Toastmasters member.  Toastmasters focus is on continuous learning in small steps.  The numerous clubs provide a supportive environment for learning.  There’s the famous statement by the founder: we learn best in times of enjoyment.  In a Toastmasters club, you learn public speaking skills and leadership skills.  You learn by doing something that you’ve never done before.  It might be something that you find difficult, or something that you have avoided.  There’s your opportunity for learning.  You don’t learn by doing something that you already know how to do.  As Toastmasters often says: you have to get outside of your comfort zone.

In Toastmasters, the various roles on the club executive, from secretary to president, offer learning opportunities for leadership skills.  The election of officers in my club is coming up this week.  One of the members suggested that club officers might want to do the same executive role over again.  This is completely backwards.  Toastmasters is a place of learning, first and foremost.  The goal is not to run the club well.  The goal is to learn to run it well, whether you are secretary or president.  Learning is the key.  You will do badly at first.  You will make mistakes.  These are all part of learning.  Toastmasters provides the environment in which you can fail, in which you can make mistakes.  You will eventually discover how to run it well.  At that point, you should move on to another leadership role.  It’s time to let somebody else have the same learning opportunities that you had.

Toastmasters is not real life; it’s a game.  Mountain climbing is real life: you take real risks.  If you slip and fall off a cliff, you will die.  A game is different.  It’s not real life.  It’s training for real life.  A game provides a safe environment in which to fail or make mistakes.  Failure or mistakes are part of learning.  In a game, you can fail one day but come back the next day to play again.  That’s why games are essential to real life.


What I Eat

I gather from what I’ve read recently that eating a balanced breakfast is essential for your health.  What’s so special about breakfast?  I suppose it’s always the first meal you eat in the day, but perhaps it’s really the fast part that’s important.  I’ve gone without eating a meal for about thirteen hours by the time I have breakfast.  The gap between my other meals is only about six hours.  One scientific study showed that eating a high-protein breakfast is beneficial to your health.  I’ve added some protein to my breakfast since I heard about that idea.  I’ve always eaten breakfast, but I know that many people skip this meal.  Doing this is controversial, but the consensus seems to be that skipping breakfast is detrimental to your health.

The “breakfast like a king” principle seems to be a good one.  The concept is that you make breakfast your largest meal, and make supper your smallest, with lunch somewhere in between.  It does appeal to me.  I haven’t gone all the way, but I have expanded my breakfast and reduced my supper.  I haven’t seen any scientific studies of this principle, but lots of people seem to advocate it.

I should mention that I’m not trying to lose weight by these changes to my diet.  In fact, some people would say I’m too thin.  Many people tell me that I’m fortunate that I don’t have to spend my life dieting.  I’m really just trying to maintain my health.  I am feeling pretty good, but I do recognize that feeling good is not a good indicator of the state of my health.  I wonder what is?

I do all my food shopping at a large grocery store.  I buy ordinary food.  I don’t buy diet food.  I generally bypass the organic food aisle.  I do read the ingredient label and the nutrition label on food products, but I only use them for information, not to decide what to buy.

My breakfast is generally two slices of toast with butter and jam, along with a protein item, either an egg or bacon or sausage, but sometimes a pickerel fillets or salmon burger.  I drink two cups of tea and a cup of coffee with my breakfast.

For lunch, I generally have a bowl of soup along with a meat and lettuce sandwich.  My dessert is a couple of cookies along with my tea and coffee.

I start supper with another bowl of soup.  This time I have a salad, made with both fruit and vegetables.  I have the same dessert as before, again with tea and coffee.

This is an adequate amount of food for me.  I do find that when I eat at restaurants, they serve me too much food.  I try to order the smallest thing on the menu, but sometimes even this is too big.  I don’t like feeling full.  I do like eating, though.  I suppose that’s a good thing.  Perhaps it’s even normal.


Damages on Netflix

Have you ever watched the TV series Damages?  I’ve been watching it on Netflix.  Usually I watch two episodes a day.  It’s a legal drama, set in New York.  The principal characters are two female lawyers, but the series also features opposing lawyers, investigators, reporters, business owners, the police, and government agents.  It does have some similarities to the series The Good Wife, but it has distinct differences as well.

In Damages, everybody can be crooked, although some people are more crooked than others.  Everybody lies.  Some are treacherous.  We can’t tell if the statement somebody made is the truth or a lie.  Everybody has hidden motives for what they say or do.  Almost everybody gives in to coersion, changing their testimony as a result.  One of the attractions of this series is the interplay of various characters as they respond to unexpected events.

It does have spurts of violence.  Many characters are attacked.  Some are killed outright.  Some recover from the attacks.  Some of them want retribution, but some never change their ways.

Dreams are prominent in this TV series.  Characters sometimes have conversations with dead people.  Sometimes bizarre events turn out to be dreams, although it may take several episodes before this is revealed.

Mysteries are piled on mysteries.  The narrative jumps around in time, sometimes forwards and sometimes backwards.  We only see glimpses of critical clues, with more being shown in subsequent episodes.  The last episode of a season is the only one that tells you what really happened.

I find this show compelling.  I’m drawn into the mystery.  I keep wondering what will happen next.  Most of the time, it’s a surprise to me, something that I never expected.  I have one more season to go on Netflix.


Snow on Victoria Day

It’s been raining all day, getting heavier as the day goes on.  The temperature is dropping.  The wind is strong and gusting.  Yesterday it was so beautiful I just had to get out for a walk.  It was warm with blue skies and sunshine, and light winds.  I enjoyed my walk.  I even went farther than I intended to.  I walk at a brisk pace.  I was overheated and looking forward to a cool glass of lemonade when I got home.  The house was warm enough from the sun that the furnace never came on.  That was yesterday.

Today, it was cool and raining.  Tomorrow is Victoria Day.  The forecast is for plunging temperatures with snow and freezing rain, starting tonight.  Winds are supposed to be very strong and gusting.  What’s going on?  This is May.  Victoria Day is supposed to be warm.  It’s supposed to be the beginning of summer.  Now I’m expecting to see snow all over the ground when I look out the window tomorrow morning.

They tell us that a Colorado low is coming through tomorrow.  Why does the weather always come from someplace else?  Sometimes we get an Alberta clipper.  Come to think of it, my grandfather used to listen to the weather reports from a Regina radio station so he could tell what was coming our way.  I suppose it really does come from someplace else.

People always say “don’t plant your garden until after Victoria Day”.  Of course that always used to be the 24th of May.  This year, Victoria Day is almost a week early.  Now they call it “the May long”.  People go camping on Victoria Day weekend.  Not this year!  It would be terrible for a family to spend two days cooped up in a tent in the rain and freezing weather.  It’s not supposed to be like this.

I once spoke to a climatologist, a fellow with a farm background.  When I mentioned that we never get normal weather, he said “that’s exactly right”.  We have a wide range of weather.  Normal weather is just an average.  Most of the time we get something different from the normal.  Normal is mostly fiction.  He also told me that we have had a frost every month of the year except for July and August.  I suppose the last frost would be in early June and the first one in late September.  “Cover your tomato plants”, they also say.

We also have extreme weather.  Tomorrow will be a day of extreme weather.  We get hot spells.  We get cold spells.  We get storms, with heavy rain or snow, sometimes even with thunder storms or tornados.  We get dry spells too.  It’s usually very pleasant here in the summer, with blue skies, moderate temperatures, and light winds.  At least, that’s what we tell the tourists.  It’s true, although you may have to wait for those pleasant summer days.

I understand that with global warming under way, we are going to have more extreme weather and less normal weather.  It’s simply because the higher temperatures will put more energy into the global atmospheric system.  I’m not looking forward to that change.



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