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Wildlife in my Yard

Spring is finally here, although not quite.  The snow has all gone.  We’ve had a few warm days, along with many chilly ones.  My maple, oak, and elm trees still have bare branches.  They look dead, but they are just patiently waiting for warmer weather.  Some of them do have buds on them, where leaves will soon appear.  At least my spruces and cedars are all green.

For the first time since winter, I’ve been seeing some new wildlife in my yard.  They aren’t around every day.  They aren’t around all day, either.  You have to keep a sharp eye on the yard to see them.  Newly-arrived birds seem to gather in the city before they disperse to the surrounding countryside.  Squirrels, of course have been around all winter.  They’ve been feasting on a heavy crop of acorns from my two oak trees.  Last fall, acorns rained down, covering the ground beneath the trees.  I’ve raked them a couple of times, but there are still plenty left.  In the winter, the squirrels dug tunnels under the snow to eat acorns.  They’re still scampering around the yards.

Last week, I noticed a Crow in the middle of my back yard.  It had something light-coloured in its beak.  It dropped it on the grass, pecked at it once or twice, and then picked up leaves from nearby and put them on top of the food.  Once it was satisfied that the food was well hidden, it flew away and disappeared.  Indeed, it was well hidden.  When I crossed the back yard later that day, I couldn’t see any sign of it.

Later, I noticed a flock of Juncos in the back yard, moving across the yard and pecking at the ground.  There were a few Chickadees with them, and one Flicker, all on the ground.  I know the Chickadees eat seeds.  Maybe all the weeds in my lawn had produced some seeds.  The Flicker is an insect-eater.  There can’t be many there, except for ants.  I had to look up the Juncos to find out what they ate.  Both seeds and insects, I found out.

In the evening, when the shadows were long and light was fading, I noticed two rabbits in the back yard, nibbling on the grass.  Maybe they were nibbling on the weeds.  That would be better.  It’s amazing how a rabbit can disappear into the background as soon as it stops moving.  One of the rabbits hides under a cedar in the front yard, facing outwards to keep watch for people or dogs getting too close.

This week, I saw a bird that I can’t identify, but one that I’ve seen before.  It’s larger than a Junco and has a speckled breast.  Usually, there’s a flock of them in the spring.  They move through the yard and them disappear.  They clean out my eve troughs, flinging leaves in all directions.  This time, there was only one, flinging leaves from the gap at the bottom of my garage door.  Maybe more of them will show up later.

Yesterday, I saw a head go past my basement window.  I was amazed.  I stopped what I was doing, and ran to the window.  It was a duck, a male mallard, walking up my driveway.  I watched it turn around and nestle down in my neighbor’s garden.  Then I saw it walking across the street.  There’s a pond there in the school grounds, left by a heavy rain a few days before.  When I looked next, there were two ducks in the pond, one dabbling.  There couldn’t be anything for ducks to eat there.  Next time I looked, they were gone.

Without even having to travel, I found a whole variety wildlife in my own yard.  I have a small urban lot, although it is in an old area with plenty of trees.  I’m impressed!  It does take a bit of patience to see such things, but it’s certainly worth the wait.


Brand Names

Recently, I listened to a fellow on the radio who was complaining about corporate concentration in the travel industry.  He owns a local travel company.  I can certainly understand why he would be concerned about that, although I didn’t know that it was a problem.  I see now that’s its a problem almost everywhere.  He used the example of the breakfast cereal isle in a grocery store.  You find yourself surrounded by boxes of cereal, with dozens of brands to choose from.  You might think that these come from dozens of companies, all competing with each other, to provide you with the best possible cereal at the lowest possible price.  You would be wrong!  There are three large companies, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Nestle, who have most of the market, and own most of the brands.  Brands owned by the same company do not compete against each other.  He told us that the same thing was happening in the travel industry.

What about the latest thing in coffee makers, the machines that use those single-serving coffee capsules?  There are just three well-known brands of capsules: Keurig, Nespresso, and Tassimo.  Do they sound European, or maybe German or Italian?  Well, Nespresso does come from Nestle, a Swiss company.  However, the other two come from American companies, Green Mountain and Kraft.  They’re not European after all.

Here’s another example, this time for ice cream.  Doesn’t Haagen Daz sound like a Danish Brand?  That name was carefully chosen to sound that way, but it’s owned by another American company, General Mills.

How about something completely different: power tools?  The company Black and Decker sells them under three brands: Black and Decker, DeWalt, and Porter-Cable.  DeWalt was a small company that specialized in one type of tool.  Porter-Cable was another, that specialized in a different tool.  Both of these were acquired by Black and Decker.  Now they sell their low end line of power tools under the Black and Decker brand.  They sell their high-end and professional tools under the DeWalt brand.  Another line of low end tools they sell under the Porter-Cable brand.  Of course, these three brands do not compete with each other.

I recently bought a new toaster.  I’m quite pleased with it.  The store, however, had three brands of toaster, all with well-known American names, and with different prices.  All of them were made in China.  I picked the middle-priced one, although I didn’t know if it was any better than the others.  The brand names meant nothing to me.

Every grocery store chain seems to have its own brand.  As far as I can tell, these brands are of no use whatever.  You may like the store brand of chocolate chip cookies, but what does this tell you about the store brand of frozen ground beef?  Nothing at all.  They are made in separate factories.  In fact, one factory may make and package a product with store brands from many different stores.  We only find about it when the government announces a recall of products from that factory.  Then we hear that it’s sold under all these different brand names.  The store chains try to sell products with their own brands at the lowest possible prices.  However, I doubt that they exercise any control over quality of these products.  They leave that aspect up to the factories that make them.

We use a brand name as a shortcut to information about a product, particularly for the quality of that product.  We say “that’s a good name”.  If we can’t trust the brand name, what’s left?  Price may be an indication, but are you sure that you are getting something better when you pay more?  Companies, of course, are free to charge whatever they think the consumer will pay.

The key term in product marketing these days is “brand recognition”.  It’s a way that companies use to differentiate their product from similar products of other companies.  To some extent, they are manipulating our minds.  We may assume that the brand name was recommended by someone we know, when we actually saw that name frequently in advertizing.  If one product is good, is another product with the same brand name also good?  It depends on the company’s quality control, and how they use their brand names.

These days, one company will own many subsidiary companies, and those companies in turn will own many brands.  The subsidiaries or the divisions managing specific brands may be sold to other companies.  The trend does seem to be towards corporate concentration, with large companies buying up smaller ones.  The result is that a few large companies dominate many industries, a situation that stifles competition and increases profits for the companies.  It’s the consumer that suffers in these situations, by having to pay higher prices.  Often, they won’t even know they are doing this.  Some brand names are carefully chosen to mislead consumers.  Some won’t know about this, either.

What should we do?  First of all, forget all the old information that you have about brands.  Just because it was a good name in the past doesn’t mean that it’s still a good name.  The marketing world has changed.  Manufacturing has moved.  Products are different now.  Instead, treat brands as just arbitrary and meaningless names.  There are so many of them now that it’s easier to do this.  Without brand names as guidance, you have to do some research before you buy a product.  Don’t look at advertizing; it always claims that their product is the best of all of them.  Find out for yourself.  As well, advocate for the government competition bureau to investigate any industry that’s dominated by a few large companies.  The only remidies are more companies or government regulation.  Of course, the companies will complain loudly;  it’s their profits that are at risk.


Sugar or Fat

I recently read an article called “The sugar conspiracy” in the Guardian newspaper.  It was about the cause of obesity, which once was fatty foods, but now seems to be foods high in sugar.  The first thing I noticed in this long article was that there was no conspiracy of the conventional kind, at least not yet.  There was no conspiracy of large corporations to suppress information on sugar in the diet.  This did happen in the case of tobacco and lung cancer, but is not happening for sugar.  Instead, it’s scientists and nutrition experts who are opposing this change of cause.

Scientists and researchers do resist change, preferring to support the conventional wisdom of the time.  It’s their typical reaction to a new theory, by defending the existing theory.  I read about this behavior in one of Stephen Jay Gould‘s essays, in the case of the theory of mass extinction by meteor impact, proposed by Luis and Walter Alverez.  It took about ten years before their theory was accepted by geologists and paleontologists.  Scientific theories are supposed to be open to change, but it may take some time before this change takes effect.

The concept of sugar as the cause of obesity, rather than fat, comes from several recently-published books.  Most of the public seems to have accepted this idea, but it’s still controversial among scientists and nutrition experts.  There is good scientific evidence implicating sugar as the culprit, but more scientific studies are needed to convince scientists and experts.

Consider one of our major industries, the producers of carbonated beverages.  They are in the process of replacing sugar with artifical sweeteners, but they attempt to maintain the same sweetness level in their beverages.  They do this for a good reason.  The public wants to drink sweet-tasting beverages.  The companies know that an optimum sweetness level will produce the most sales of their product.

Scientists and nutrition experts now operate on a shakey scientific ground.  According to the article, there’s an absence of well-designed scientific studies that show fatty foods to be the cause of obesity.  This connection has been conventional wisdom for many years, of course.  Instead of good science, they rely on people with authority and reputation in the obesity field.  In some cases, science has been misused as a way to prove what they already believed.  Some scientists and experts even have vested interests in diets that they have developed.  The field is a bit of a shambles.

It seems likely that sugar is the real culprit in obesity.  With a few more well-designed scientific studies, scientists and experts will be forced to change their opinions.  Likely a few of them will lead the way.  Maybe it won’t take ten years this time around.


A Dog is Still a Dog

I recently read an article on the web with the title “Evolution makes scientific sense. So why do many people reject it?”.  This article explains that people have a built-in bias against the principles of evolution because of their early learning.  It claims that children have already learned two false concepts.  One is that species don’t change, an idea that is clearly in conflict with evolution.  The other is that species are designed for a purpose.  This idea too may be in conflict with evolution.

When we are young, we first build up a body of practical knowledge of the world around us.  It’s about the world we live in because that’s what is most important to us.  We don’t learn Newtonian physics, for example, where an object in motion will continue in the same direction forever.  That’s not the world we live in.  Instead, we learn that a moving object will slow down and eventually stop.  That’s how things behave in our world.  Our initial knowledge is similar to everybody else’s.  We call it common sense.

Evolution is contrary to common sense.  We know that species don’t change because we’ve never seen them change.  Evolution is logical and does make sense, but only after we have come to understand the principles that form the basis of evolutionary change.  Saying that species don’t change is actually correct most of the time.  Evolution is not a gradual change.  Instead, new species branch off the lines of decent of existing species.  The mechanism for these changes was discovered by Charles Darwin.  He called it natural selection, in analogy to the artificial selection practiced by plant and animal breeders.

The main principle behind evolution is deep time, a term I read about in one of Stephen Jay Gould‘s essays.  Deep time itself is contrary to common sense, simply because such times are outside of our experience.  Just the numbers are difficult to imagine.  Our human species originated about 200,000 years ago in Africa.  We had a common ancestor with chimpanzees and gorillas millions of years ago.  Multi-cellular life began about half a billion years ago.  People don’t think in terms of geological time, although they can learn it if it’s important to them.  Children don’t learn history that’s only a hundred years old because it’s not immediately useful to them for living in their world.  They can learn history and deep time later, but they will have to revise their common sense thinking to some extent.  This is something that everybody does as they acquire new knowledge.

Of course, children learn that animal species are immutable and distinct.  This is a correct observation in our world.  Even when its fur is dyed like a giant panda, a dog is still a dog.  Of course, dogs did evolve from ancestral species, but this happened a long time ago.  This idea is also correct, and not in conflict with the belief that species don’t change in the present time.

The other bias, mentioned in the article, is that people generally think about the function of an animal or animal part, rather than its cause.  This behavior is also quite reasonable.  Describing the function is easer, simply because it occurs in the present.  The cause is something that happened in the past, and is generally quite obscure.  Of course we think of the function first.

William Paley, who I also read about in one of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays, wrote that perfection of design in animals is a the mark of a creator, and that creator is God.  Perfection in design is actually an illusion.  Many aspects of design are imperfect.  Evolutionary theory predicts only an adequate adapation, because at that point there is no further pressure for change.  This principle is more in accord with real observations.

The article states that children give a peculiar explanation of why rocks are pointy.  Children generally don’t know about geological history, the history that explains why rocks are pointy.  They need to understand deep time before they can explain this correctly.  All they know about is function in the present time.  No wonder they say that it’s pointy to prevent animals from sitting on it.

Children also say that a giraffe has a long neck so that it can browse higher up the acadia tree.  This explanation, the only one they know, is correct, although it only describes their behavior.  No doubt there is an evolutionary explanation too, but children don’t know it.  Again, it takes and understanding of deep time to answer this question correctly.

The way that children learn now is beneficial to them, and should not be changed.  Their first body of knowledge describes how the world works in the present time.  That’s exactly what they need to know to live in this world.  Many aspects of their knowledge will need to be revised as they grow and learn.  Their world becomes more complex and more realistic as a result.  This is a normal and beneficial process.  Evolution, like many other scientific theories, is in conflict with people’s initial learning.  Their initial learning is not wrong.  It only needs to be revised to include concepts, like deep time, that they did not consider initially.


Guaranteed Income

The province of Ontario is putting it into place.  The federal government in Ottawa is studying it.  It’s a guaranteed income, a single social payment that’s intended to replace many smaller social payments.  Even just the reduction in bureaucracy should result in quite a saving.  Why don’t we do it?

There certainly is opposition to a guaranteed income.  Some people fear that poor people, the ones receiving the payments, would waste the money.  Never mind that poor people are the ones who know best how to make their money go as far as possible, the ones who really know how to budget.  It’s actually the wealthy people who waste their money and who don’t have to budget.

Some say that a guaranteed income is unfair.  “I never got it when I was starting out”, they will say.  Of course, some of these same people inherited money from their parents, or had their education paid for by their parents.  The world has changed.  People starting out with nothing are likely to end up with nothing as well.  Many of them already require social payments just to live.  Combining all of the payments into one is not a big change.

Some are concerned that a guaranteed income will create a sense of entitlement among those who receive the payments.  Saying “the world owes me a living” is the fear.  Recipients won’t work because they no longer have to.  In practice, this doesn’t happen.  People who are able to, will work, provided that jobs are available.  Just like everyone else, they do want to be self-sufficient.

Of course, some people believe that government handouts just don’t work.  It’s because poverty is the fault of people who are poor.  Nothing wealthy people or the government can do will ever change that.  This is a very old attitude.  It stems from the idea that poverty is the result of bad genes, and that bad genes are inherited from parents who also have them.  We know now that that idea is bad science, and is false.  Still, the attitude persists.  It’s the people who have that attitude who are unlikely to change.

Is a guaranteed income a socialist concept?  Of course it is.  All social payments are socialist concepts.  Many of them are also good ideas.  Many of them are essential ways to treat other people in a humane and respectful manner.  Combining all of them into a single social payment is also a good idea.  If you believe that socialist means the same as communist, and that communism is the enemy, you have some outmoded beliefs that you should reexamine.

We have dozens of government programs now that make payments to people for specific purposes.  Why not just give them the money and let them decide how to spend it?  Is this such a radical idea?  Sure, there will be a tiny minority of people who will abuse this freedom.  The vast majority will benefit from that freedom.  If it can be done at a lower cost to the government, or to taxpayers, a guaranteed income will be even better.  I, for one, will welcome it.


Rent or Buy

It seems to me that people are losing the distinction between renting and buying something.  More properly, companies are encouraging people to lose that distinction.  Their customers are likely smarter than that, however.

The distinction has to do with ownership, not with payments.  If you buy something, you own it immediately.  As the owner, you can do anything you want with it.  You can sell it or otherwise dispose of it whenever you want.  If you are prevented from doing those things, it’s because you don’t actually own it.

I just received an e-mail message from a major telecom company that offered me a new mobile phone for zero dollars if I took out a monthly plan with them.  That’s how most people get mobile phones these days.  What does a phone really cost?  I suspect that most people don’t know.  It’s in the range of $400 to $1200.  You’re not really getting it free.  You are paying for it with your monthly plan, along with whatever air time and data that’s included.  You also don’t own it.  It belongs to the telecom company.  Read your payment plan to find out the terms of this agreement.  There is an alternative, though, one that most people don’t consider.  You can purchase a mobile phone outright, and put it on a plan with a telecom company.  In this case, you pay only for air time and data.

With domain names, there’s no such alternative.  The companies that provide domain names all rent them.  They say that they’ve sold it to you, and that you are the owner, but it’s only yours for a fixed number of years.  You can renew it for a further term, but it’s never really yours.  If you don’t renew it, the domain name reverts to the company.  They will sell it to somebody else.

Software is often offered on similar terms.  You pay for it once, but ownership remains with the vendor.  You are never the owner.  The vendor places restrictions on what you can do with it.  That sounds like renting to me, although the company would call it a license.  If you violate the terms of the license, you might be hearing from the company’s lawyer.  You also have no alternative, other than not to agree to the license in the first place.  Not all software is offered this way, but it’s certainly the usual way.

It’s clearer with automobiles.  If you borrow money to purchase a car, the finance company uses the car as collateral for the loan.  You are the owner, but you owe money to the finance company.  They will have a say if you want to sell the car, but that will be covered by your loan agreement.  You can also lease a car, just like you might sign a lease for an appartment or house.  In this case, you are not the owner.  It’s a lease, not a purchase.

You have a similar choice to buy or rent a house, condo, or appartment.  If you take out a mortgage, it’s just like a car loan.  You are the owner.  If you sign a lease, you are renting your living quarters.  The company offering the lease is still the owner.  You will be making monthly payments in either case.  You always have to decide which choice is best for you.

Ownership is the key.  If you are paying for something, regardless of whether it’s one time,  monthly, or annual, but you don’t have ownership, you have not bought that thing.  Instead, you are renting it.  Maybe that’s perfectly okay.  Maybe it’s exactly what you wanted.  The main thing is that it’s clear to you.



Garage Door Opener

When I had a new garage built a few years ago, I had a garage door opener installed.  The installer left me two manuals, one for the door itself and one for the opener.  It came with two remote controls.  I keep one in my car, and the other I keep by the kitchen window, which overlooks the garage.  Lately, the side door has been sticking, so that when I park my car in the garage, I operate the overhead door from inside the house.

About a month ago, we had a rather unpleasant day, with low temperatures, high winds, and blowing snow.  When I arrived home, I put my car in the garage and went inside where it was pleasantly warm.  I clicked on the remote at the kitchen window, but turned away without watching the garage door close.  A bit later, I happened to look out, and noticed that the door was still open.  Had I forgotten to close it, or was something else wrong?  I tried the remote again.  The door still didn’t close.  Now I knew I’d have to go outside to find out what was going on.

I put on my winter coat, and went out to the garage through blowing snow.  This time, I tried the button on the wall near the side door.  The door moved across the ceiling a bit and then reversed.  That was all it would do.  I tried several things to get it to move further, but nothing worked.  Finally, I pulled the red handle to disconnect the door from the closing mechanism, and closed it by hand.  I left it that way all night.  I thought I’d have to call a repair company to fix the door opener.

Tomorrow is always another day.  I thought I’d better check the manual before I called a repair company.  The manual described the exact symptoms I was seeing!  It said that this would happen before the sensors were installed at the bottom of the door, and also if they were out of alignment.  They pass an invisible light beam across the bottom of the opening to prevent the door from closing if anything was blocking the beam.  I knew that the sensors were installed; I’d seen them before.  Maybe they had gone out of alignment, although that seemed unlikely to me.  According to the manual, there was a yellow light on the transmitter that was always on, and a green light on the receiver when it was receiving a signal from the transmitter.  You aligned them if the green light had gone out.

I went out and took a look at the sensors.  The blowing snow had stopped by then.  The receiver was covered in snow.  It wasn’t a snow drift, though.  It had grains of snow all over it, including in the hole that the light beam passed through.  Could that be the problem?  I brushed off all the snow.  The green light came on.  It went off when I blocked the beam with my broom.  That looked good to me.  When I reconnected the door, and tried the button on the wall, the door opened and closed just like it used to.  That was all it took.  I didn’t need to call a repair company after all.

It was only a few days later that I noticed that the light on the end of the door opener was not working.  It certainly was working when I’d had that problem with the sensors.  Something else must have gone wrong.  It couldn’t be as simple as a burned out bulb, could it?  The easiest way for me to tell was to replace the bulb.  Like all garage door openers, it took a special incandescent bulb.  It had to cope with the vibration of the opener, and be able to turn on and off quickly.  The manual said that a CF or LED bulb was not recommended.  It had to be incandescent.  I had bought bulbs before that were made specifically for garage door openers, but I didn’t have any of those left.  I couldn’t find them in the stores, either.  I did find one that was made to withstand vibration, but intended for a fan or an opener.  That would have to do.  It was only a few dollars for two, anyway.  When I replaced the bulb in my garage door opener, the light came on immediately, and turned off a few minutes later.  That’s how it’s supposed to be.  Everything was back to normal.  How long will this bulb last?  I had no idea.

I learned a few things from this experience.  Don’t be too hasty in calling a repair service.  Take time to read the manual.  The solution may be easier than you think.



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