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Christmas Dilemma

What Christmas gifts can I get this year?  I can’t think of anything, except for the same things I got last time.  My habit is to visit my parents at Christmas.  They live in a small city about two hours drive away from here, in a senior’s home.  Both of them are in their late 90’s now.  I’ll be staying in the spare bedroom in their suite.  A few other relatives will be joining us.  None of us are particularly religious, but we do have a few Christmas traditions that we want to maintain.  We all have dinner together on Christmas day.  We exchange gifts on Christmas morning.

What Christmas gifts can I get for these people?  All of us are my age or older.  We’ve settled on small things as Christmas gifts.  None of us want gifts that we have to keep.  This policy seems to grow stronger as people get older.  My parents celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary recently.  They received many letters and certificates of congratulations from leaders, including one from the Queen.  My mother complained afterwards that here were more things they had to keep.  She declared that she would keep them for a year, solving that problem.

They only want gifts that are consumable now.  So do I.  I have too much stuff too.  Books would be good.  Both my parents are readers.  They can give them away when they’ve read the books.  As long as the print is large enough, they will accept them.  Of course, they have too many books already.  How about food instead?  That’s certainly consumable.  I could get jars of jam, boxes of chocolates, or chocolate bars.  Isn’t all of that full of sugar?  I suppose, but it’s also delicious.  They can decide how much of it to eat at a time.  I ration it out, with lots of exercise in between.  Other people can do that too.

Maybe I can get them useful items, at least things that I believe will be useful to them?  I’ve tried that before.  They don’t seem to agree with me.  Most of these things get set aside, and eventually thrown out.  Everybody in my family has everything that they could possibly need.  I’m going to give up on that idea.  Maybe I’ll keep trying, but mostly I’ll give up the idea.

Now I’m back to what I gave as gifts last year.  That actually worked out pretty well.  Nobody complained, but we’re all polite now.  Some people even expressed appreciation.  It worked out pretty well.  I’m going to do the same thing again this year!


Personal Contact

When have you conversed with a real person lately?  Don’t count people who are paid to be nice to you.  That would include servers in restaurants and cashiers in stores.  Those are a vanishing species, too.  Pretty soon we will be able to order food in a restaurant from our mobile phones.  Pretty soon the stores will offer only machines to check our purchases and take our payment.

Aren’t there real people on the internet and on social media?  Aren’t they our friends?  Likely, although we never know.  There are also people pretending to be somebody else.  There are also robots pretending to be people.  The other day, Google wished me a happy birthday.  I was surprised.  How did Google know?  By the information I gave it, of course.  It’s just software wishing me a happy birthday, not a real live person.

I read all of my news on the web, but I know that it’s one-way communication, and broadcast communication at that.  I don’t have any influence on the news, although I can comment on news articles, of course.  I don’t count news as contact with a real person.

Advertizing and solicitation are all one-way communication too.  I get calls on the phone.  I get people knocking on my door.  I get e-mail and paper mail.  All of them are trying to sell me something.  This isn’t personal contact either.

When I want to converse with a real person, I rely on my family now.  People do talk to their husband, their wife, or their life partner.  They are indeed real people, most of the time.  People also talk to their children and to their relatives.  How often people do this depends on how close they want to be.  It’s a choice.  Some people are naturally close.  Others are naturally distant.  Of course, other activities can get in the way too.  It might take me a week to arrange a short conversation with a friend or relative.

I do occasionally talk to my neighbors, but they too are occupied with their families and their own friends.  Most of the time, I only talk to my neighbors when I happen to see them out in the yard.  It’s usually quite superficial and light-hearted.  Neither of us is willing to share more serious information.  I suppose we get our impression of neighbors from what they don’t say.  Maybe it’s all guesswork?

There are still some places where we have personal contact with real live people.  Various social events lead the way.  Even then, people have the opportunity to converse, but they have to take advantage of that opportunity.  They have to engage other people, often strangers, in conversation.  They may have to take the first step.  People may not be at all what you assume.  Getting to know other people may bring great rewards.

If social events are too intimidating, how about club meetings?  Generally it will be the same people at each meeting.  Soon, they won’t be strangers anymore.  The same thing holds for groups that are engaged in the same activity.  If you are slow to warm up to other people, you at least have time to get to know them at these types of events.  You will soon discover that there’s no harm in letting other people know you.  You may even find a friend that way.


Republican Agenda

To say that speculation about Donald Trump was in the air would be an understatement.  Most of the news articles I’ve seen are about him.  What will Donald Trump do, they all say.  My answer is that he won’t do anything at all by himself.

His supporters learned some time ago that whenever he made an outrageous statement, it was just bluster.  Sure, some people believed it, but most people knew that he couldn’t possibly do that.  All of his statements were outrageous.  The voters were smart enough to recognize that.  Still, they voted for him and the other republicans.  His statements were not policy.  In fact, the president of the United States has little influence over policy.  It’s the party that determines policy.

It was eight years ago, when Obama was elected president, that the republicans devised a strategy.  It was simple.  They would oppose any measure that was initiated by Obama, even if they had previously approved of it.  Having the majority in the senate and in congress, they could do it easily.  This strategy ensured that the perception would be that the democrats did nothing but talk for eight years.  Their strategy worked.  This time, the public wanted to vote the democrats out.  Their only alternative was to vote the republicans in.  It’s a two-party system, after all.

Now, the republicans are in control of the senate and the congress.  They have a republican president.  They are one nomination away from having a republican majority on the supreme court.  That’s all three pillars of government in the United States.  They can do anything they want now.

What they want is to put republican policy into action.  This policy is not a secret.  It’s been public knowledge for some time.  Republicans are pro-business and pro-military.  They are anti-government.  They want governments to run a balanced budget.

In more detail, they want to remove any regulations that limit business, including environmental protection, consumer protection, and worker protection.  They also want to expand the US military by expanding their budget.  In accord with their belief that private business is always better than government business, they want to privatize all government services that are possible to privatize.  In line with this policy, they want to shrink government departments and agencies.  Of course, they won’t do all of these things immediately.  It will be a slow and gradual change.

To achieve a balanced budget, now that they are in power, the republicans will be reducing government spending and raising taxes.  The phrases“belt tightening” and “austerity” will soon be heard.

It’s going to be good times for investors.  It’ll be bleak times for ordinary people, though, and bleak times for the environment.  With deregulation again, we may even see a repeat of the 2008 recession.  “Interesting times” it will be, at least for Americans.  The rest of the world will be watching with great interest.


Punishing Suspects

There seems to be a popular call to punish suspects these days.  People who advocate this course of action want to dispense with the legal process and dispense with the investigation.  They just want to punish the suspect right now.  In most cases, the punishment they want is execution of the suspects.  Of course, they don’t call them suspects; they call them criminals.

Legal traditions stand in opposition to this call for swift justice.  Suspects have a right to a fair trial, and a right to a good defense.  They are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.  There must be evidence against them, and this evidence must be valid.  Courts must be independant of political pressure.  If accused persons are found guilty, their punishment must fit the crime.  They retain the right to appeal their sentence.  In many countries, capital punishment is prohibited, so that they can appeal.

We’ve seen many examples of this sort of rough justice.  In the Philippines, death squads kill suspected drug dealers, or people who can be labelled as drug dealers.  There was a recent spate of vigilante killings in Mexico, one that drew the approval of many other people.  Even the United States regularly kills people on the ground from remote-controlled drones with no pretense of a fair trial.

Why does the public want this sort of justice?  The perception that there’s too much crime is the main reason.  That might be a false perception.  Public accusations against a suspect may be another reason.  The slow court process and inadequate investigations by police only make the situation worse.  Society today moves at a faster pace then ever before.  News media publicize a story for a few days and then move on to something new.  By the time a suspect is convicted or acquitted, the public has forgotten about it.

How can we solve this problem?  Even though culprits must be punished, suspects must still be treated fairly.  They must be acquitted if evidence against them is lacking, or if the evidence is tainted.  Somehow, the court process has to be speeded up.  This could be accomplished by expanding the court system, or by replacing part of it with a streamlined process.  Courts may need to be overhauled in some manner.  An injection of technology may provide the necessary speed.  Investigation of crimes by police also needs to be improved, although I don’t know how this could be done.  Some types of crimes, by their nature, don’t provide solid evidence.  Finally, plea bargains should not be counted as convictions.  After all, a suspect will often plead guilty to a lesser charge simply as a way to avoid the severe punishment that accompanies conviction on a greater charge.  They could still be innocent.


The Place of Unions

I grew up in a conservative area.  I probably adopted the prevailing conservative views about trade unions, without even thinking very much about them.  Many companies saw unions as a socialist mechanism to take away their freedom of action.  Many people were opposed to trade unions.  Many people favoured business over labour.

I changed my attitude somewhat when I worked for my father one summer.  He owned a small business.  I remember when one of the customers told him that it must be a wonderful thing to be in business for your self.  This customer called it “being your own boss”.  My father responded by saying:  “Yes, I’m the sales manager.  Yes, I’m the parts manager.  Yes, I’m the cashier behind the counter.  But, I’m also the guy who cleans the toilet in the washroom”.  Being a small businessman didn’t seem so wonderful after that.

I still didn’t think much about trade unions when I got my first full-time job.  It was only when I heard that our group of employees was about to be organized by an international union, that I gave it some thought.  We were the only group that had not already been unionized.  I was initially opposed, but I also wanted to find out more about it.  I remember attending meetings with the union representative where we learned about labour legislation and the union movement.  It all sounded positive and attractive at that time.

Shortly after the organization move began, our administrator notified us that we were supposed to be working longer hours.  We came in Saturday mornings for a few weeks, until the union was able to take legal action.  Labour legislation clearly stated that the employer was not permitted to change working conditions while union certification was in progress.  We went back to our usual working hours.  We were impressed, and disgusted with the administration.  So many of us signed union cards that we were certified without need of a vote.

That was when the real work began.  We had to negotiate for a first contract.  I recall many meetings where we discussed job classification and salary ranges.  At one, a member wondered why we needed classification at all.  He said that we should all be paid the same.  The union representative had to explain to him why people were paid different salaries.  My respect for the union rep grew at that point.  It grew even more when one of our people drew a cartoon for the union newsletter.  It featured Marx and Lenin standing behind the workers as we shouted at the administration.  The union rep declined to publish the cartoon in that form.

I endorse collective bargaining.  It’s the only fair way for the employees and the employer to settle issues that stand between them.  The principle is that the union becomes the bargaining agent for the employees, instead of each employee having to bargain individually for wages and benefits.  I was even on the bargaining committee for our first contract.  It consisted mainly of waiting.  In my case, it consisted entirely of waiting.  Even though I was paid for it, I didn’t much like that aspect of collective bargaining.

In this country, we have the Rand formula for union membership.  It’s a compromise between two unpalatable alternatives.  One is a closed shop, where everybody has to be a member and has to pay dues.  The other is the so-called right to work, where union membership and payment of union dues are both optional.  Under the Rand formula, you can opt out of union membership for reasons of conscience, but you still have to pay union dues.  This is reasonable because you still benefit from the presence of the union as bargaining agent, even if you can’t be a member.

I see that I’ve gradually changed my attitude towards unions, from what it was when I was growing up.  Unions and corporations balance each other.  The union wants higher wages and employment benefits for the employees.  The corporation wants higher profits for the owners or the share holders.   Governments need to provide effective labour legislation to maintain this balance.


We Don’t Have Inches

Metric conversion in Canada began in 1970, over 40 years ago.  It wasn’t abandoned, but it stopped at the transition phase, the worst possible place.  The party in power at the time found it too politically volatile to continue.  Stopping at the transition meant that industries could use either system, at their convenience.  Some of them continued the conversion to the metric system.  Retailers, however, generally adopted the smallest units, because that made prices appear lower.  Signs in the produce department of grocery stores, for example, show both prices per pound and prices per kilogram, but the pound prices are much larger, and also much lower.  Customers only look at the pound prices.  In the delicatessan department, however, prices are only per 100 grams.  Customers seem satisfied with those.  People like whatever they become accustomed to.

Many things have happened since 1970.  Other countries have converted to the metric system, leaving the US as the only major country still using traditional units.  They seem to have no appetite to change this situation.  Another thing that happened is that devices can now display anything in either metric or traditional units.  All of my digital thermometers, for example, have a switch to select either Celsius degrees or Fahrenheit degrees.  Other devices have scales for both units.

Whenever I see something expressed in inches, feet, gallons, or pounds, my first reaction is to say to myself “We don’t have inches in the country”.  Police reports are the worst offender.  They describe a suspect’s height only in feet and inches, and their weight only in pounds.  I have no idea what either of those means.  I suppose the police assume that most people do know.

The thing that I find most amusing is when car dealers advertize the MPG (miles per gallon) of their automobiles.  The car’s odometer doesn’t display miles: only kilometers.  We can’t buy a gallon of gasoline in this country: only a litre of gas.  It’s a big number, though.  I suppose that big numbers sell cars.  My car uses 7 litres per 100 Km on the highway.  Small is better in that system.  Small numbers probably don’t sell cars.

I cringe when I see headlines like “Inflation inches higher”.  There’s no need to use an old-fashioned unit here.  Couldn’t the headline writers at least use neutral words, such as “Inflation creeps higher”?

I’ve been using the metric system for the last 40 years.  I’m so happy to be rid of all those fractions of inches.  Is 9/16 larger or smaller than 1/2?  I don’t care anymore.  I’m so happy to be rid of ounces and fluid ounces too.  I use metric everywhere I can.  I know my own height and weight only in metric units now.  When I measure something around the house, I use only cm and mm.  I would welcome a revival of Canada’s metric conversion process now, although I don’t expect it to happen unless the US converts, or hell freezes over.  Perhaps these will happen at about the same time.


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.