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Too Much Concrete

This happened many years ago, when I was just a boy, when I believed that my father knew everything.  He wanted to build a patio floor, from poured concrete,  in the back yard.  He gave me the task of preparing the site.  I dug out the area, levelled it off, and put in the forms.  I’d never done that before, but it seemed pretty simple to me.

Then he asked me to calculate the amount of concrete that we needed.  That seemed pretty simple too.  I measured the size of the form and the depth.  It worked out to just under one cubic yard.  When I told my father that, he said that he would order a yard and a half, just to be safe.  He knew everything.  I was a little worried.

The patio was to go in our back yard, next to the garage.  Our yard was separated from the back street by a stone wall.  The patio was close to the stone wall too.  When the truck arrived, we asked the driver if he could pour the concrete over the wall.  “No problem”, said the driver.  He set up his chutes, and began dumping it into our new patio.  We were spreading it with rakes and shovels.  The concrete kept coming.  Pretty soon it was way over the top of the forms.  “Stop”, we yelled.  The driver stopped the flow.  “Where should I put the rest of it?”, asked the driver.  “Dump it outside the wall”, was all we could say.  The driver was satisfied with that.  He dumped it there, and drove away.

We had a problem.  The concrete was setting quickly.  We were supposed to be smoothing it off at that point, but it was way too high.  We had to get it down to the forms somehow first.  We had to shovel it away as quickly as possible.  Wet concrete is really heavy!  We tried shoveling it over the wall, but gave up that idea after two tries.  Instead, we built a pile of concrete inside the yard, racing against time.  Wet concrete is really heavy!  It was exhausting work, but we finally got it down to the top of the form.  My father asked me to make the pile more attractive.  We sure weren’t going to move it.  “Make it into a bird bath”, he suggested.

We did get a patio floor, although one that was not very smooth on top.  We also had a big pile along side it, a pile that just might have been a bird bath.  I learned a few lessons too.  Never doing that again was the big one.  I also learned that my father didn’t know everything, and that I sometimes had a better way of doing things.

 

What to Privatize

A local politician recently announced that her party would consider privatizing a government company, if that party was voted into power.  This news led me to think about which companies should be privately-owned, and which should be government-owned.

Let’s start with some ground rules, ones with which many people will agree.  Private companies are more efficient, with proper competition.  They can easily be identified from their low profits.  However, companies that dominate their markets, be they monopolies or oligopolies, are generally not efficient.  These companies can be identified from their high profits.  Governments must regulate these companies.  Of course, they must also tax their profits.

Efficiency in a company is generally a good thing.  The result is usually lower prices for their products.  Efficiency is not automatically connected with private enterprise.  It requires real competition.  Of course, a drive for lower prices may also affect the employees by keeping their salaries low or by reducing their number.  Still, efficiency is generally a good thing.

The big factor is the political ideology of the government in power.  People on the extreme right of the spectrum want as many companies as possible to be privately-run.  They also want minimal regulations, so that companies can look after their own affairs without government interference.  Those on the extreme left want the opposite.  They want more government agencies, with as much control over private companies as possible.  Fortunately, most people fall somewhere in the middle, between the extremes.  They want a more balanced mixture of companies, with regulations where they are necessary.

Money is the root of all evil, they say.  It’s also the reason behind many privatization attempts.  Governments often privatize companies because they want the money they can get by selling them.  I’d say that that’s not a good reason.  Also, government companies sometimes compete against private companies.  In general, they shouldn’t be doing this.  If the industry can function well with private companies, the government shouldn’t be in that market at all.  The CBC often draws this accusation, but I see this as a special case.  As long as the CBC sticks to its mandate, which is to provide services that private broadcasters do not provide, they are not competing with them.  Finally, government companies can be a source of income for the government, or can require subsidies from the government.  Neither of those facts should be a reason to move them into private hands.  Service to the public should be the only consideration.

The traditional government companies are the utilities, companies that supply water, electrical, or telephone services.  That’s because most of their investment goes into pipes or cables to each home.  Lately, governments have found innovative ways to privatize these companies.  Take the water utility as an example.  They set up one company that owns the pipes, the pumps, and storage ponds.  This company charges a delivery fee to pay for all of this.  They also set up many private companies to deal with the customers.  These companies pay the delivery fee.  It all sounds good because most of it is private, but there’s still no real competition.  I call it false competition.  It would be better for the government to continue to operate the water utility.

When I was on vacation in Utah, I was surprised to find that all of the state and national park employees were working for a private company.  In this country, they would all be provincial or federal government employees.  In Utah, there was one contractor for all of the parks.  Sure, it was a private company, but there was no competition.  There was no gain in efficiency.  It’s another instance of false competition.

Governments, naturally enough, often want to reduce costs.  Sometimes, employee’s salaries are the major cost.  The magic solution is to transfer the work to a contractor instead.  Then the contractor will be responsible for hiring all of the people it needs.  This is really a tactic to reduce salaries.  There is no magic.  There is no competition.  There is no efficiency.  All there is are lower salaries, which of course does reduce costs.  Likely also, there is reduced service to the public.

I haven’t developed a specific way to determine which companies should be in the private sector and which should be in the government sector.  However, the decision should be pretty clear from a knowledge of the industry involved.  Some are naturally private.  Some are naturally government.  Going beyond that for ideological reasons only results in false competition or false monopoly.

 

Dogs and Cats

I recently read a story about a woman who brought a litter of kittens to an animal shelter.  Her cat had just had kittens a few weeks earlier.  She was heartbroken to give them up, but she couldn’t care for them.  The attendant took the kittens into a back room of the shelter, and then returned to talk to this women.  As she was about to leave, she asked to see the kittens one more time so say goodbye to them.  The attendant told her she couldn’t do that: they were all dead by then.  Needless to say, the woman was devastated by that news.  She had not expected that at all.  Why did this happen?

I’ve also read several stories about police and the Humane Society having to remove dozens of animals in wretched condition from a house.  I’m not talking about animal breeders here.  I’m talking about people who protested that they love animals and that they took good care of stray animals.  People get trapped by a situation like this.  They truely feel compassion for strays.  Neighbors bring them stray or unwanted animals.  They can’t refuse to take them.  Soon they have so many that they can’t afford food, litter, and veterinary services for them.  They’re convinced they are doing the best they can for the animals.  It can only end badly.

It’s really a matter of economics, supply and demand.  There are many unwanted animals, too many for individual people to handle.  Some people are looking for pets, but not enough of them to account for all the unwanted animals.  Something has to happen to the surplus.

A few years ago, I went to an animal shelter run by the Humane Society to make a donation.  That’s when I found out that animal shelters have a front door and a back door.  People looking for a pet come in the front door.  They see animals on display that are waiting to be adopted by a new owner.  People bringing unwanted animals to the shelter come in the back door.  It’s much more austere, often just a counter.  They just leave the animals, and get out as quickly as possible.  They generally don’t want to know what will happen to them.

I do hear regularly about no-kill animal shelters.  They do offer pet adoptions.  They do provide care for animals that aren’t adopted.  Their cages are always full.  They deal with the surplus of uwanted animals by turning away many people who bring them in.  Even then, they are asking for donations and looking for volunteers.  They always seem to be teetering on the edge of bankrupcy.  Their hearts may be in the right place, but doing it this way isn’t going to work.

Some people are operating under an illusion.  They believe that animal shelters will find homes for all their unwanted pets.  Maybe they have to maintain this illusion in order to justify their actions.  Animal shelters don’t try to dispell this illusion.  The reality of the situation is different, though.  Animal shelters have to kill animals, sometimes a large proportion of the ones that they accept.  They do do it in a humane manner.  There’s no other way for them to provide the services that they do.  There’s just too many unwanted animals.

 

Irish Ancestors

When I was growing up, my parents had derogatory terms for people of all nationalities.  They often used these in jest, but sometimes they were serious about people they considered inferior.  Sometimes these terms were just a way to describe people.  I didn’t know what my background was, but I knew it couldn’t be one of those despised groups.  My best guess was Scottish.  I knew I couldn’t be Irish or English.

When my grandfather became friends with a family of Irish farmers from the western part of this province, my mother was amused that they called him `Mac’.  She insisted that he was Scottish because his name began with `Mc’.  I found out much later that both `Mac’ and `Mc’ were used in both Scotland and Ireland: they didn’t indicate your nationality at all.

My mother recalls that her mother used to go to the Orange Lodge.  That’s an Irish Protestant organization that began in Northern Ireland.  In Ireland, they are a conservative and unionist group.  Here in Canada, Orange halls were also community cultural centres.  My mother now regards the Orange order with some distrust.

Recently, two people did the genealogy of both sides of my mother’s family.  Genealogy is not very scientific.  The number of ancestors doubles every generation you go back.  After a few generations, you need to prune the tree just to keep the number manageable.  You also run out of records, at least for ordinary people.  Consequently, most of your ancestors get left out.

We did learn a few things, in spite of these limitations.  My family had been in Canada for many generations.  All of their names were Irish names.  That was a surprise.  They came from Ireland a couple of centuries ago.  That was a surprise too, but it made the matter quite clear.  I was Irish!  All of my ancestors were Protestant too;  it must have been Northern Ireland.

A friend of mine told me about her husband.  He had a French name and came from Montreal.  He became interested in genealogy.  He traced his family through many generations back to the original French settlers near Montreal.  He traced them back to France.  There he got a surprise.  Their name in France was O’Brian; they came from Ireland too.  That was where his genealogical quest ended: he had run out of records.

It’s interesting how attitudes have changed.  My brothers and I don’t care about nationality or religion.  Both of these were important to my parents, although they are less important now than they were when my parents were young.  My grandparents carried over some of their prejudices from their Irish ancestors.  Earlier generations must have been even more intolerant of other people, although I don’t have specific details.  Living in Canada was responsible for some of the change, although I’m sure that people still living in Ireland have changed too.  It does take some time for irrational beliefs to fade away.

 

Upper House

Today we have two stories about the upper houses of parliament.  The Canadian parliamentary system is based on the British system.  Our Senate corresponds to the British house of lords.  Both countries also have an elected house of commons.  Bills must be passed by both houses before they become law.

I’m sure you all heard the announcement: Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, said that he would not be appointing any more senators to the senate.  Harper, of course, is also leader of the Conservative party.  For the Conservatives, the trouble with the senate used to be that it was full of Liberals.  Harper fixed that by appointing more senators than any other prime minister.  Now the senate is full of Conservatives.  Legislation usually originates in the house of commons.  Once it’s passed there, it moves on to the senate for their approval.  With a majority in both houses, and tight control of voting, government bills have a quick and easy passage through both houses and into law.  Even if the Conservatives lose the next election, the senate, now full of Conservatives, will still have to approve all bills.  No doubt, government bills will be witten so that they are likely to be passed by the senate.

A book I read recently, published about 150 years ago, used as a background the agitation for reform of the parliament in Britain.  Specifically, it dealt with the campaign to extend the vote to the dissenters, who were non-Anglical protestants.  This campaign stirred up little controversy, and easily passed in both houses of parliament.

At the time in which the book was set, only male landowners who were members of the Church of England could vote or stand for election to the house of commons.  These rules excluded all women, all renters, and members of other churches.  Today, I find such restrictions difficult to believe, but I have no doubt that the world was quite different 150 years ago.

The next reform, to extend the vote to Roman Catholics, was more controversial; there were riots in the streets.  Voters still had to be male landowners.  The reforms we know about, allowing all citizens to vote, came much later.  The bill to extend the vote to Roman Catholics was passed three times in the British house of commons, but defeated twice in the house of lords.  The third time, the king intervened and ordered the lords to pass the bill.  They complied that time, and it became law.

There is something to be said in favour an upper house.  In Canada, they often call it the chamber of sober second thought.  It’s the members who can make it or break it.  It’s important that they can act independantly, and not be constrained by party politics.  There’s no way to guarantee independance, of course.  How they are chosen is important.  Having them appointed by the prime minister must encourage partisan behavior, rather than independance.  I suppose that changing the way they are chosen is a good place to start the reform of our upper house.

 

The End of Capitalism

The other day, I ran across an article in The Guardian with the title The end of capitalism has begun.  It’s a long article, summarizing a book.  As I read it, I found I agreed with some statements, but disagreed with others.

The author’s conclusions about history seemed reasonable.  He states that the dream of the traditional socialists was to defeat capitalism, but instead the socialist movement collapsed.  The 2008 market collapse did deal a blow to capitalism.  Many economies are stagnating.  The solutions are not working.  Of course, any system based on continuous growth can’t be sustainable.  Austerity seems to be a cure that’s worse than the disease.

It’s true that traditional capitalism suppressed the working class.  After all, labour was a major cost for the company.  I did read someplace about the automobile industry.  Real wages have stayed the same over 30 years.  In spite of strong labour unions, wages for workers in this industry have barely kept ahead of inflation.  At the same time, productivity has greatly increased, with a corresponding decrease in the need for labour.  Labour is no longer a major cost.  Automation is responsible for this change.  Of course, unemployment also increased greatly.  Most jobs now seem to be low quality, with low wages, long hours, and no benefits.

The author also outlines in glowing terms a new way of living, and how we will achieve it with networks and information technology.  Everything will be free.  Don’t people still need food and housing?  Those can’t be free.

He also states that another crisis is coming, and this one will be different.  He’s predicting the future, at least in general terms.  Predictions have always been wrong, sometimes spectacularly wrong.  I have little confidence in predictions.

Information plays a big part in this article.  It can’t be valued in monetary terms.  Instead, its value resides in its usefulness.  However, the fact that companies hoard information means that it does have value.  If it’s useful, it will be useful to companies too.  They’ll use it to make money for themselves.

It’s true that invention creates intellectual property rights.  That’s why companies accumulate patents and copyrights.  They can become the most valuable asset of a company.  Governments aid in this endeavour by extending the monopoly period for both patents and copyrights, and by convincing other countries to do the same.

The idea that information is abundant and will be free seems to be a dream.  It will likely never be free like the air.  Software, even free and open software, always has a cost.  For commercial software, the vendor does the product support and supplies technical expertise and product development.  For free software, the purchaser has to provide all of those services.  “You get what you pay for” is still true, and you do have to pay for it.

The aim of this new world order seems to be zero costs for products and zero need for work.  Is this the bright future we must imagine?  I have some doubts.

 

Dissecting a FET

This happened back when transistors were new and vacuum tubes still ruled the world of electronics.  I had built an oscilloscope from a kit.  It was full of vacuum tubes.  I wanted to look at the intermediate frequency signals of a receiver, also full of vacuum tubes.  The oscilloscope input had two long leads with aligator clips on the ends.  They wouldn’t do for sampling the IF signal.  Not only would they detune the amplifier stage, but they would act like antennas, radiating the signal all over the place.  I needed a probe that would put the lightest possible load on the IF stage, and would transmit the signal back to the oscilloscope over a shielded low-impedance cable.  A probe containing a triode tube in a cathode follower configuration was the usual way to solve this problem.

I had a better idea.  Field effect transistors had just come in.  They were a perfect replacement for vacuum tubes.  They were expensive, but I bought one.  The equivalent circuit was a source follower.  It only needed a 9 V battery for power.  I could build the whole thing in a very small case.  I put a large paper capacitor between the probe tip and the gate pin of the FET; it would pass a wide range of frequencies but block high DC voltages.  When I tested the probe with audio signals, it worked perfectly.

I was ready to try it on the IF amplifier stage of my receiver.  First I put the probe on the grid.  I saw a small signal on the oscilloscope.  Then I moved it to the plate.  I saw a much larger signal.  This was amazing.  I was impressed.  It was working very nicely.  Then I tried the grid again.  Nothing!  Gloom descended.  It never worked again.

What happened?  I pondered this question for some time, until the aweful truth came to me all of the sudden.  The grid of the IF amplifier was grounded through the IF transformer.  The plate was at 150 V DC.  Nothing happened when I first put the probe on the grid, but when I moved it to the plate, that capacitor charged up slowly through a resistor.  When I moved it back to the grid, the capacitor discharged very quickly through the FET, with so much current that it destroyed the FET.  Quick as a flash, my expensive FET was turned into a tiny piece of junk, never to amplify again.

I had never seen an FET before.  It was expensive.  I decided to at least examine it before I threw it away.  It was a white ceramic disk with three leads coming through it, with a black cap made of a drop of epoxy.  When I tapped it gently with a hammer, the black cap popped off.  Underneath, I saw that one lead was bent over and flattened against the ceramic disk, but the other two stuck straight up.  I needed magnification to see more.

I brought the FET into work, where we had a binocular microscope.  With that, the tiny details of the FET loomed into view like buildings and streets of a city block.  The die was really tiny.  It was sitting on top of the flattened lead.  That was the gate lead.  Hair-like wires ran from the other two leads to pads on the die.  These were the source and drain leads.  Down the centre of the die ran a serpentine gap, with source and drain fingers projecting from either side.  I could even see a damaged area in the gap, no doubt the result of the high current I had put through the FET.  I was amazed at what I saw, even though I was still disgusted with what I had done.

Other people at work were not impressed.  They looked in the microscope, but really didn’t care about what they were seeing.  Maybe they didn’t understand.  Maybe they just weren’t interested in electronics or those new transistors.  I suppose I was the only one who was interested.  I had also learned an expensive lesson.  It was a long time before I bought another FET.

 

 

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