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I maligned a squirrel

Last fall, I saw a red squirrel dash under my deck and disappear.  My sunroom is built on top of that deck.  I have wiring under the deck, power cables, a telephone cable, and an ethernet cable.  Squirrels like to chew on wiring.  I was alarmed when I saw it do that.  The deck does have a plastic skirt that covers the space below it, but there are gaps below the skirt in a few places, and also at one end where the wiring came in from the house.  After it snowed, the squirrel kept going under my deck.  I could tell by the tracks in the fresh snow.  I was even more alarmed.  I tried plugging up some of the gaps with lumber, but the squirrel just found another way in.

Even though it was right on the ground, no doubt the squirrel felt safe and snug under there.  The neighborhood cats couldn’t get in.  I gave up trying to plug the gaps in the skirting.  After all, a red squirrel could squeeze through tiny openings.  All winter, I was worried about my wiring.  Finally, I removed all of the skirting on one side.  That would allow neighorhood cats to get under the deck.  That would make it less safe for the squirrel.  That was all I wanted to do in the winter.  Was it too late for my wiring?  I made plans to put a metal screen around all sides of the deck in the spring.

One warm day in the spring, I vacuumed the carpet in my sun room.  I picked up the phone, my $9.99 phone that had been out there all winter.  The phone was dead.  That little red squirrel had chewed on my phone wiring.  What about the ethernet?  It was the same type of cable, just longer.  Both ran through the same conduit from the house.  Both ended in the same receptacle in the sun room.  I tested the ethernet with my laptop.  It worked perfectly!  It was only the phone line that the squirrel had chewed.  Every time I saw that squirrel in the yard, I projected hatred towards it.  Because of that little animal, I’d have to replace the telephone cable.  I bought a length of flexible tubing that I could put over both cables and attach to the conduit at both ends.  That would at least provide some protection for the telephone and ethernet cables.

I wonder if the phone is still okay?  It was fine after the previous winter in the sun room.  I brought it inside and plugged it into a phone jack that I knew was good.  It was still dead!  The phone had gone bad.  Maybe the wiring in the sun room is okay after all.  When I took my other phone out to the sun room and plugged it in there, it worked perfectly.  The wiring was okay!  I had unfairly maligned that little red squirrel.  Better yet, I didn’t need to replace the phone cable.

I am still going to install the flexible tubing over the two cables.  I may still get more of that tubing, and install it over the power cables too.  Even that will be annoying to do.  There’s only about 8 cm of space below the deck.  The cables don’t need protection from moisture, but they do need it from small animals with sharp little teeth.  I’m still planning to put some sort of screen all around that space too, but this is not as urgent as I thought before.  I suppose I should even be grateful that that little red squirrel didn’t destroy my wiring.  Still, I don’t want to take that risk next winter.

 

The Shopping Experience

I recently heard a news story on the radio, most likely as part of the business news.  It stated that the US-based Whole Foods grocery store chain was opening a new chain of stores called 365 by Whole Foods.  These new stores were to be focused on millennials.  Now, I don’t know any people of that generation, and only know what I have read about them.

The millennials are people in their 20s, the ones who are always connected to the world by their mobile phones.  They are environmentally conscious, willing to pay a premium price for products that are manufactured in an environmentally sensitive way.  According to many articles, all of which may be based on the same study, they favour experience, rather than ownership.  Of course, millennials are not all the same.  No doubt they have a range of sensibilities and a range of motivations.

One thing I don’t understand is how a shopping experience can be appealing.  Even if you prefer doing instead of owning, you still have to purchase something when you are shopping.  This is especially true of a grocery store.  We all have to eat, after all.  Maybe they will be making the experience fun, fun, fun.  It’s the experience after all.  These two articles point that out:

I can’t agree.  I see experience in a grocery store as another marketing scheme, and as an attempt to manipulate me.  I pick up what I need and get out of there as soon as possible.  I don’t even stop to taste the free samples that stores offer.  I’m resisting any experience that the stores provide.  Clearly, I won’t go to any store that offers even more experience.

 

Who to Protect

I recently did something I don’t often do:  I commented on an article published on a web site.  The article was about the European Union investigating Google.  Google’s Android phones dominate the mobile phone market in Europe.  The investigation was to determine if Google has abused their near-monopoly position.  Some commenters claimed that this was impossible because all components of Android were free and open.  This isn’t quite true because Google sets conditions on the use of the Android name, and because they license Android to companies who manufacture the phones.  Google really does maintain some control over Android phones.

One of the commenters even said that the EU acts to prevent success.  I felt compelled to respond to that one.  I commented by saying that any monopoly puts  consumers at a disadvantage by forcing them to pay higher prices.  It does, of course, increase profit for the company.  That is success, at least for the company.  Governments, such as the EU, are well aware of the disadvantages to consumers of monopoly in any market, and are willing to act to prevent monopolies or to regulate them.

Many others responded to my comment on that web site.  One of them even claimed that Google was a natural monopoly, and that as such it should escape goverment action.  My understanding is that companies are natural monopolies when most of their investment is in infrastructure.  Where I live, companies that provide water, sewer, electrical power, natural gas, telephone, and cable TV services would be natural monopolies.  Some of these are government-owned.  All of them are government-regulated.  Google isn’t a natural monopoly.  For proof of this, you only have to consider North America, where Apple dominates the mobile phone market.  Google is a minor player in that market.

It’s competition that makes companies more efficient.  This benefits consumers in terms of lower prices and freedom of choice.  Good competition requires many companies producing the same product or service within the marketplace.  It also results in lower profits for the companies, encouraging them to reduce competition.  This tendancy is something that people and governments have to be vigilant about.  Of course, there are many anti-competitive practices, some of which are permissable and even ethical.  Think of advertizing, branding, copyrights, and patents.  There’s also buying up the competition, usually called a merger.  Things like that should attract the interest of goverments who want to maintain competition in a market.

Some people claim that private companies are always more efficient than government corporations, just because they are privately-owned.   That can’t be correct if both are monopolies.  In that situation, the only way a private company can be more efficient is by paying lower wages to employees, or by reducing the level of service.  Monopolies don’t have the advantage of competition to make them more efficient.  We need competition or regulation.

Who do we protect?  Should it be the ordinary people who purchase the product or service.  Should it be the companies who provide the product or service.  Ordinary people should be in the majority.  In a democracy, the majority should win!

 

I Used to Smoke

I was at my regular afternoon dance a couple of weeks ago, when a fellow walked in that I recognized.  I recalled seeing him at an evening dance a few years ago.  When I spoke to him at that time, he told me that he didn’t need a seat at a table.  He said that he would be on his feet all evening anyway.  Sure enough, he danced every dance.  I was quite impressed with him.  I couldn’t do that.  I would dance for one and then rest for the next one.  I have a bit more stamina now, but I still have to sit one out after dancing two of them.

This time he did need a seat.  He could only make it through half a dance before he was gasping for breath.  He said “my doctor told me I have COPD in my lungs”.  He was angry with himself.  He was bitter.  He said “I quit smoking 20 years ago”.  “Not soon enough”, I thought.  I knew that Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a loss of lung capacity, caused by smoking.  I associate it with oxygen bottles and oxygen masks.  I suppose that’s what you have to use for the rest of your life, in severe cases of COPD.

I used to smoke too.  It was back when everybody did, although it was really only about half the people.  I remember when I started.  It was in the University cafeteria.  I was sitting around one of the long tables drinking coffee with my classmates.  Some of them were smoking.  I got up, went over to one of the cigarette machines, and dropped my 35 cents in.  I came back with a package of cigarettes and a free pack of matches.  As I was opening the package, one of the others said to me “I didn’t know that you smoked”.  “I’ve been smoking for several years”, said I.  Then I lit one up, took one drag, and started coughing.  After that, I smoked regularly.  I didn’t cough anymore, though.  I was just like other people.  That’s what I wanted.

It was only about a year later that I quit.  I remember that too.  I had a summer job helping with scientific research.  I was sitting at a desk, immersed in some scientific papers.  An older fellow, probably only 40 years old, approached me.  He asked me if I was aware that I was lighting up one cigarette after another.  I had no idea I was doing that.  I stopped smoking cigarettes immediately.  I didn’t stop smoking entirely, though.  I switched to little cigars for a few months.  Then I quit completely.

It’s been 50 years since I quit smoking.  I only smoked for a couple of years.  I know that’s unusual.  Quitting was relatively easy for me.  I know that’s unusual too.  I’ve seen how difficult it is for other people to quit.  I don’t understand the difficulty.  However, I don’t offer advice on how to quit to other people.  Maybe I at least serve as a good example for them.  It seems that nobody smokes now, but I understand that about a quarter of the population still does.  I’m assuming that the smoking I did all those years ago has not harmed my lungs.  I’ve been fortunate.  I was distressed to see that other fellow suffering and being angry with himself.

 

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.

 

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