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Broken Promise

Yes, Prime Minister Trudeau did promise, during the election campaign, that his government would reform the electoral system by adding some form of proportional representation.  Yes, he did appoint a minister with the specific task of investigating electoral reform.  Yes, he did announce the results of this investigation.  He told us that Canadians favoured change in the electoral system, but that there was no consensus among them for the type of change.  With that result, he abandoned his promise of electoral reform.  Immediately, the media were occupied with cries of outrage.

Why was there so much outrage?  Some people felt betrayed, saying that they had voted for his party because of that promise.  Some people saw hidden motives behind this change of position, claiming that reform might benefit the Liberals, or might disadvantage the Liberals.  I suppose that everybody is interested in the electoral system because everybody uses it; any change is going to affect most people.   Has no politician ever broken an election promise before?  Maybe this seldom happens in Canada.  It does seem to be happening every day in the US.

I’d say that this is an honest and correct change, in the face of public opposition to the original promise.  It takes a great deal of courage, and is the mark of a good leader, to change something as controversial as this promise.  In fact, our Prime Minister did proceed a long way down the path of electoral reform, before deciding that it was a bad idea.

Our current electoral system is generally called first past the post.  This means that one member is elected in each constituency, with the party having the largest number of members elected forming the government.  In this system, the popular vote has no effect on the outcome of an election.  Like all electoral systems, it has positive and negative effects.  This system favours major parties, and neglects minor parties.  It generally promotes a majority government by not accounting for the popular vote.

There are various schemes to reform the traditional democratic electoral system, by taking the popular vote into account.  A ranked ballot is one.  Proportional representation is another.  They all favour, to some extent, minor parties, regional parties, or single-issue parties.  They all disadvantage major parties.  Some of them are quite complex.  They may also favour minority governments.  They may even encourage coalitions to form after the election results have been announced.

I like the current system, mostly because it promotes majority governments.  This sort of government can do its job of governing the country and enacting legislation, while still being accountable to the people who elected it.  Still, I’m open to a certain amount of proportional representation.  People who voted for minor parties or for polititions who hold unpopular views still need to be represented in parliament.  After all, in a democracy, the majority rules but the minority must be heard.  The only issue for me is how much proportial representation we should have.

 

The English Patient

I just finished the book The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.  In fact, I read it twice.  Each time I finished the novel, I felt as though I’d been through the war and had been changed by the experience.  I’d also seen the movie made from the novel, but I thought the book was better.  In the movie, some images popped up on the screen that made no sense to me until I’d read the novel.

The story is set in 1945, the last year of world war two, in a bombed-out villa in Italy.  Four people are living there.  One is the English patient, a man burned black from head to toe.  He’s a desert explorer, but won’t tell anyone which one he is.  There’s also Hana, a Canadian nurse who is looking after the English patient.  She’s deeply affected by the war, and all the wounded and dying patients she had to look after.  They’re joined by Caravaggio, an Italian thief who had known Hana before the war.  The last of the four is a young Sikh sapper who has joined the British army.  He’s an expert in defuzing bombs and mines left by the retreating German army.

Each of them has a story to tell.  The English patient talks about his travels in the North African desert, and his romantic attachment to Katherine, the wife of another desert explorer.  Only at the end of the book does he reveal his true identity, and which side he was working for.  Hana describes her experiences as a nurse following the advancing troops, and how she coped with those traumatic events.  Caravaggio tells how he worked as a spy for the British during the war, and how he was captured by the Germans.  Kip, the Sikh sapper, describes his training in defuzing bombs in England, and his effort in building temporary bridges across rivers in Italy.  He has mixed feelings in working for the British, who are also the colonial rulers in his homeland of India.

The book ends suddenly and dramatically, as the war in the Pacific ends with the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan.  Hana and Kip both move on to new lives, but neither can forget what happened in that villa in Italy.  I, the reader, was affected too.  It was a masterful piece of writing.

 

Revitalize News Service

A report on how to fix the ailing news industry in this country was in the news recently.  This report was ordered by the government.  Some of all of it may turn into legislation or policy later in the year.

News, especially local news, is important.  It’s a way to keep the public informed.  It’s part of the democratic environment.  That’s why loss of news is a threat to our democratic process.  This report makes an attempt to solve fundamental problems.  It’s not just an attempt to prop up a failing business.

The report seeks a solution without interfering with the grand movements of the news industry.  Print media, newspapers and magazines, are in the decline.  Electronic media, web pages and mobile applications, are on the rise.  In some media, particularly television, news is being presented as entertainment, rather that as information.  It’s made more dramatic and more immediate that it really is, as a way to increase its appeal to news consumers.

The fundamental problems are the loss of local news reporting, along with the centralization of news services.  These movements are a result of cost saving within the industry, along with a desire to make news reporting just like any other content.

Of course, somebody has to pay the cost of good journalism.  There is always a cost.  Sometimes an investigation takes a year to complete.  Sometime’s there’s no story in the end.  Somebody has to pay the salaries of journalists, and pay them well.  There appear to be two models for this.  One is free but requires advertising, so that the revenue from this advertizing pays their salaries.  The other requires subscriptions, so that the consumer pays their salaries.  With this model, there’s no advertizing.  Of course, there could also be a blended model, with both advertizing and subscriptions.

The report made several recommendations.  It wanted to ban all advertizing on the CBC web site or the CBC’s mobile applications, just as CBC radio is prevented from carrying advertizing now.  This does, of course, remove a source of revenue for the CBC.

It also recommended that both the CBC and the Canadian Press start up local news bureaus.  These would provide free news reports to news services, including the CBC and the CP.  The local news bureaus would be funded by the government, just as the CBC is funded by the government now.

Finally, it recommended changes to corporation tax law so that Canadian companies could only claim electronic advertizing as an expense if it was supplied by Canadian agencies.  By this means, companies would shift their advertizing from foreign agencies to Canadian ones.  Canadian advertizing agencies would grow, paying more corporation taxes to the government.  This new revenue stream would be fed back to the new local news bureaus.

This report outlines an ambitious plan.  It certainly contains many good ideas.  I like it myself because I want more local news, and I don’t want to see advertizing.  I do have some reservations, particularly surrounding the corporate tax changes.  Couldn’t the government just tax foreign advertizing agencies, Google for example, whenever they accept advertizing from Canadian companies?  Maybe it’s easier to leave them alone and cause the shift to Canadian agencies instead.

I’m wondering if the two local news bureaus could merge at some level?  It might be to their advantage to become one news bureau.  Even if this did not happen, they could employ the same journalists, or provide the same news stories.

I’m also wondering how these changes would be viewed by other news services or by companies in other countries.  Newspapers, broadcasters, and commercial news sites often complain about unfair competition.  Would these changes make the situation worse for them?  Would the government funding for the news bureaus constitute a subsidy?  This might be a violation of trade agreements with other countries.  Of course, it also might be seen as an innovative solution to a shared problem.  What’s it going to be, then.

 

Personality from Appearance

We all do it, without even thinking.  It has a name: physiognomy.  It used to be considered a science, but not anymore.  We all believe we can determine someone’s personality from their appearance.  It’s a survival skill.  We can make an immediate decision about a person.  Are they friendly?  Are they an enemy, about to kill us.  A good idea, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work.  Only family members are likely to be friendly.  Everybody else is suspect.

I remember being on a committee that was conducting job interviews.  We had already looked at the resumees.  Everybody we interviewed was qualified for the job.  Some people on the committee said that they were a good judge of character.  They needed to see the person.  In the end, we all voted on who to offer the job to.  We picked one person.  We even all agreed.  That one person did the job well.  The people who claimed to be a good judge of character were validated.  In truth, we could have chosen any one of the candidates.  That person would have done the job well too.  They were all good.

I’ve read almost all of Charles Dickens‘ novels.  He writes elaborate descriptions of characters in each novel.  In particular, he describes the facial features, the bearing, and even the clothing of each character.  We, the reader, are supposed to recognize the personality and social class of each person from this description.  Evil people have a dark  countenance and shifty eyes.  Upper class women have a fine nose, white hands, and tiny feet.  This is all nonsense.  We recognize that now.  Still, we use it to classify people.

I just read about Captain Fitzroy, who commanded HMS Beagle on surveying expeditions to Tierra del Fuego.  Charles Darwin was his companion on the second voyage.  The book was Evolution’s Captain by Peter Nichols.  Fitzroy was a firm believer in physiognomy, along with its relative Phrenology.  Certainly we all know now that phrenology, reading the bumps on your head, is nonsense.  The same fate should be given to physiognomy.

I also read Charles Darwin’s book, the Voyage of the Beagle, based on that same trip.  Darwin explored the east and west coasts of South America, along with Tierra del Fuego.  He travelled inland on foot and on horseback.  He often described the facial expression of savage races.  Clearly, he believed we could read their personalities from those expressions, but he also believed in the inherent goodness of people.  He was open to change in his beliefs, just as he was open to the new ideas that eventually led to his discovery of the mechanism of evolution.

We need to be open to other people too, instead of making immediate judgements about them.  People are just people, regardless of whether they look just like us or look quite different from us.  Physiognomy is no longer a useful survival skill.  It’s now a barrier that prevents us from getting to know other people.

 

A New Refrigerator

My refrigerator came with the house.  It was old, at least 40 years old.  It was still working, but the plastic parts had become brittle.  Some of them had broken.  More were likely to break if I tried to clean the fridge, or do any repairs on it.  The time had come to replace it.  I did like the refrigerator.  It had a pale yellow colour that matched the rest of my kitchen appliances.  I knew where everything was in that fridge.  Still, it was time to replace it.  Some would say that its time had come and gone.

I wanted a simple refrigerator to replace it, one with a top freezer, but no fancy features.  I also wanted one that would fit in the space where the old one had been.  That space had a height limitation: the old fridge came within a few millimetres of the cabinets just above it.

As I browsed through the listing of refrigerators on the web, I soon learned a few things about new ones that I hadn’t expected.  They were all specified in American units: feet, inches, and cubic feet.  There were only two finishes available: white and stainless steel.  I decided on white.  Many of the fridges were too tall for my kitchen.  Even with the height listed for each of them, I didn’t trust it entirely.  I wanted to get one that I was sure would fit.  The new ones all had a different shape from my old fridge.  They were narrower and deeper than the old one.  That wasn’t a problem, but it would stick out farther from the wall than I wanted.  Finally, I decided on one model, and ordered it on the web.  They allowed me to choose a delivery date, and as that day approached the delivery company called me and told me it would be in the afternoon.  They would also take away my old fridge at the same time.

I removed the frozen food from the old fridge the night before, packing it into a cooler that I put outside.  It would stay frozen out there.  The next morning, I removed all of the chilled food, packing it into another cooler.  This one I kept in a cool spot inside the house.  Then, I unplugged the old fridge and left it to warm up with the doors open.  My new fridge arrived just about the time they told me it would.  I expected the two men to install the fridge too, but they didn’t do that.  I suppose they would have reversed the door, but that wasn’t necessary for my kitchen.  Instead, they told me not to remove the tape or any of the packing material until the fridge had warmed up to room temperature.  They told me that removing the tape while it was still cold would leave a residue that was difficult to remove.  I really wanted to get it running so I could load all my food back into it.  I really wanted to see if the owner’s manual was inside.  Besides, it would warm up more quickly with the doors open.  Instead of peeling off the tape, I cut it so that I could open the doors.  Inside, there was tape all over the place, along with cardboard and pieces of foam plastic.  The manual was hanging there too.  One more cut, and I removed it.  I always like to read the manual before I do anything else.  Once the fridge felt warm all over, I removed all the tape and all of the packing material.  I plugged it in.  Soon it started getting cold inside.  I have a nice thermometer that’s made for refrigerators or freezers.  With that, I could tell when it was ready for my food.

I have a new fridge.  It gleams all over.  It’s white, and doesn’t match the rest of my appliances.  It certainly fits the space where the old one sat, although it sticks out more and is not as wide.  It’s also shorter, with at least 10 cm of space between it and the cabinets above.  Maybe I should have gotten a larger fridge.  The freezer compartment is larger.  With all my frozen food inside, it still looks empty.  The main compartment does have adquate capacity for all of my chilled food.  The only problem was that I couldn’t arrange it the same way as before.  Perhaps I’ll get used to that.  Perhaps I’ll even like the new fridge.

There are certainly some things I do like about my new refrigerator.  It certainly keeps my food cool.  I know where things are now.  I like the transparent shelves; I can see what’s on lower shelves quite easily.  I also like the wider door shelves;  I use them more than I did with my old fridge.  I suppose I’ve become used to the new fridge now.  It’s just a refrigerator, after all.

 

God Again

I just reread Karen Armstrong‘s book A History of God.  I found it rather complicated last time I read it.  This time was no different.  I got lost in all the details.  Still, I managed to extract some general principles from the book.  It’s really a history of religions, rather than a history of God, although the two do go together.

The focus of the book is the three monotheistic religions that trace their origins back to Abraham.  These are: judiasm, christianity, and islam.  The book does mention that previous religions were polytheistic, having many gods.  The ancient israelites, when they migrated into the land of Canaan, adopted the Canaanite gods.  It was only later that they settled on a single God.  The ancient Romans were polytheistic before they converted to Christianity.  Likewise, the Arabs were polytheistic before they converted to Islam.  The book does mention other religions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism, but only for historical comparison with the three Abrahamic religions.

All three had a great deal in common.  All of them changed throughout history, as they adapted to changes in society.  All of them eventually divided into sects.  There was always a mystical sect.  There was always a revivalist sect that attempted to return to the roots of the religion.  There was always disagreement between the sects.

I noted two quite different conceptions of God.  Philosophers and scientists used mathematical logic and rational thinking to develop their concepts of God, along with a literal reading of the scriptures.  Some even developed proofs that God existed.  Others used quite a different approach: mystical thinking.  This was an interior and personal journey, involving meditation, dreaming, and various forms of stress and deprivation.  The result was a personal God, one that was deeply meaningful, but could not be clearly described to other people.  They employed a symbolic reading of the scriptures, so that the stories of mythology were never intended to be factually accurate, but did convey a moral message.

Logical proofs that God exists, using rational thinking, no longer works.  Even if it did, the result is always a distant God, perhaps God the creator.  Such a God cannot intervene in the lives of ordinary people, and is really of no use to most people.  Of course, God may appear irrational and illogical to us, because of our limited intellectual powers.  Logical proofs may be useless after all.

Karen Armstrong does imply that we can choose a God that is most suitable to us, and most useful to our society.  She also describes some concepts of God that may be harmful to us and our society.  We need to be careful of constructing a God that’s a perfect version of ourselves.  This God could become an idol, for example.  Perhaps what we need is just a sense of God’s spirit, although many people are not willing to do the work that leads to such a discovery.  She also cautions us against any religion that requires a literal reading of the scriptures.  Such a religion must deny the discoveries of science over thousands of years in order to maintain that literal interpretation.

 

A Glimpse of TV

I usually don’t watch television, mostly because I hate commercials.  All of the television channels have them, so I can’t escape them.  At Christmas, though, I visited my parents in their senior’s home.  They do watch TV, something that most people likely do.  I watched it too, and rediscovered why I don’t like it.  My mother went through the cable channels, selecting programs that seemed interesting to her.

I watched many TV commercials, fortunately only for a few days.  Many of them promoted diet plans, certainly a money-making enterprise.  People who believe they are overweight will try many different diet plans.  They all work at first, and all fail in the longer term.  The only winner is the diet plan company.  I found most of the commercials to be intrusive, especially after I’d seen them again and again.  This repetition is intentional, of course.

Other commercials were funny at first, then amusing, and eventually just annoying.  I was skeptical of others, like they were trying to sell me something I didn’t need by telling me half-truths.  Many were simply annoying.  No doubt people resist these commercials by muting the sound or just not paying attention to them.  I suppose, though, that some people buy products that have been heavily advertized.  That is what the advertizers want.

Most of the programs on TV seem to be of two types, humorous or action shows.  I don’t like either one.  I do like a good drama, but not of the soap opera kind.  There were lots of old movies on at Christmas time.  I watched two Santa Claus movies.  Both of them had similar plots, although they had different characters and different settings.  I might have enjoyed them more if they hadn’t been interrupted by commercials so often.  I found it difficult to maintain continuity with all the commercials.

I’m more convinced than ever that I’ve made a good decision to avoid watching television.  I do watch movies on Netflix.  I do read books.  The difference is that I can choose what to watch or what to read, and I can choose when to do it.  The other difference, of course, is that I’m not at the mercy of commercials.  Will advertizers read this blog?  Will they find a way to reach me even if I don’t watch TV?  I suppose this will happen some time.