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Life in a Communist State

A few months ago, I went on a vacation in Cuba.  It was actually a bus tour of the island.  During this tour, we heard from a number of Cuban people.  Much of what I learned about life in Cuba came from our tour guide, but we also met a doctor, a tobacco farmer, a guide at a coffee research station, a school principal, and many other ordinary people.

Cuba is following the principles of communism as enumerated by the founders of that ideology.  The economy of Cuba is tightly controlled by the government.  Karl Marx made the famous statement “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.  That’s what they are trying to accomplish in Cuba.

There are many government companies in Cuba, but few private companies.  These companies provide revenue for the government, either directly or through taxes.

People can purchase subsidized food from government stores, up to the limits stated in their ration books.  If they need more than that, they must purchase it on the open market.  People also get free health care, except that they must purchase their own drugs.  If they can’t afford to pay for drugs, neighbors will contribute towards the purchase.

Farmers must sell 90% of their produce to the government.  They can keep the remainder or sell it on the open market.  I saw cattle grazing on farm land all across Cuba.  I only found out later that the farmers don’t own those cattle.  They also don’t own the trees growing on their land.  They can’t harvest the trees for lumber, unless they fall down naturally.  Hurricane Irma was bountiful for many farmers and small landowners.

Almost everybody is employed in Cuba, with many of them working for the government.  Salaries, however, are quite low.  Not many people want to work in the coffee plantations, regardless of the salary.  The same thing holds for sugar cane plantations and tobacco fields, no doubt.

There are very few private cars in Cuba, mostly because people can’t afford them.  The old cars we saw on the streets were all taxis, part of the tourist industry.  Ordinary people there ride on buses or hitch-hike.  We saw people sheltering from the sun under bridges, waiting for rides.  They generally pay the driver for the ride.

It was only when I returned home, that I realized that I was living in a different world.  We do have some socialist facilities here.  We have free medical care, but most countries have some sort of government-operated medical care.  We also have a great deal of private enterprise.  The mixture of the two works reasonably well.  I was happy to be back home.



What the Dog Saw

I’ve been reading What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.  The book is a collection of articles he wrote in the early years of this century.  Most of the articles are about mysteries, some obvious and some not.  He also makes a distinction between puzzles and mysteries, writing that with puzzles you have too little information, but that with mysteries you have too much information.  He tells us that some puzzles can be treated as mysteries.  Of course, when you do that, the distinction between the two disappears.

In the book, many articles are about people who analyze information and make predictions from that information.  One is about FBI profilers who develop a description of the culprit in a crime.  Once the police arrest the culprit, their prediction always seems correct.  Of course, some of them later may revise their original statements to make their predictions seem even more accurate.

Another is about intelligence services that attempt to predict what another country or its leader will do.  Some of their predictions turn out to be completely wrong.  The problem is that governments can only verify the prediction after the event has occured or has not occured.  The lesson here is that its usually impossible to forsee an event.

We also read about a professional sports scout who attempts to predict how college atheletes will perform in the professional leagues.  This prediction works quite badly, at least in the case of football quarterbacks.

Job interviewers attempt to predict how a candidate will perform on the job, assuming that people will behave the same in all situations, including the interview.  Unfortunately, this assumption is incorrect.  People’s behavior is not something fundamental about them.  They may well behave quite differently in real situations.

A stock market analyst attempts to predict what a particular security will do, based on knowledge of the company and past behavior of the security and the market itself.  Their predictions will be completely wrong whenever unexpected events occur.  Unfortunately, these events occur frequently, but cannot be anticipated.

People who analyze satellite images attempt to identify objects on the ground, without knowing what is really there.  There is an element of guesswork required.  Sometimes they guess wrong.

Pathologists who analyze manogram images attempt to identify cancer among a myriad of similar spots that are not cancers.  Their predictions are necessarily imperfect.

Clearly, there are more instances where interpretation must be done than we might expect.  Some of them predict future events, a process that can’t be verified until the event has occured.  Prediction of the future is often wrong.

Although not mentioned in the book, the quality of the information available is important, perhaps more important than the quantity of it.  In the case of a puzzle, we have some factual information, but one critical piece of factual information is missing.  The puzzle can’t be solved until that missing piece is found.  We all can tell when a puzzle has been solved.

In contrast, the information about a mystery is always incomplete and may come from unreliable sources.  It always requires interpretation by a professional.  Only another analyst can verify the prediction.  They often disagree.

As the book states, we can eliminate bad predictions by examining the type of statments made.  They are the same type used by astrologers and psychics.  This leaves us with the good style of predictions.  They still may be incorrect.

Beware of predictions is the best advice.  Sometimes, however, people or groups of people have to act with only incomplete information.  By doing this, they are taking a substantial risk.  The risk is always there.  There’s no way of getting around it.


Inside Cuba

I recently went on a tour of Cuba, a bus tour of the island that began and ended in Havana.  My photographs from this tour are now available.  Most of the people on the tour were Americans.  In fact, there was only one other Canadian in the group.

The source of these comments was my own observations, along with information given us by our Cuban tour leader.

Judging by the number of monuments and museums devoted to leaders of the revolution, Cubans do celebrate their revolution.  In particular, they celebrate Che Guevera as a war hero.

The American embargo, begun in 1960, plays a major role in the character of Cuba today.  It does block many imports that would otherwise come from the nearby USA.  For example, orange juice is almost never available at breakfast buffets featured by all the hotels.  In fact, Cubans tend to blame all failures on the embargo.

We watched a documentary on the Bay of Pigs invasion, saw the bay itself, and visited the nearby Bay of Pigs museum.  The invasion was planned by president Kennedy just after he had promised that the USA would not invade Cuba.  It was mounted by the CIA, and almost seems intended to fail.  Fail it did.  The invaders were mostly Cuban exiles, although they were trained and equipped by Americans.  All of them were captured by the Cuban military within a few days.

There are railroads all over Cuba, but no trains run on those tracks.  The rolling stock is sitting in rail yards waiting for repairs that never happen.  On the other hand, roads and highways are busy.

Many of the agricultural products have no market outside of Cuba.  Who wants sugar or tobacco now?  Bananas grow well, but they are too small for international markets.  Some crops, sugar and coffee for example, require a great deal of manual labour.  Nobody wants to do this work anymore.

Electrical power comes mostly from diesel generators.  It’s unreliable, going off almost every day.  It’s also expensive.  That’s why all of our hotel rooms had LED lights and a master switch mounted on the wall near the entrance door.

Cuba does have some oil, but it’s too high in sulfur for most uses.  Much of the crude oil and petroleum is imported from other countries.  Gasoline and diesel fuel is expensive in Cuba.

Our tour company gave us bottled water to drink.  In fact, some hotels advised their guests not to drink the tap water.  Every building seems to have rooftop water tanks.  These are filled by a water company when necessary.  Even then, the water supply in hotel rooms is unreliable.  They warn about the temperature of the hot water, but you usually get only a trickle of luke-warm water.

Socialism is the basis of the economy.  There’s only one political party.  However, according to our guide, the importance of a person’s political affiliation has been waning recently.  Still, the government operates all large enterprises.  Government corporations sell rum and cigars to tourists.  There are also many benefits of the socialist system for ordinary Cubans.  They buy food at subsidized prices and receive free health care, for example.  Unemployment is low.  However, wages are also low.  Still, there’s a great deal of support for the Cuban revolution, the socialist system, and for the government of Cuba.


A Tourist in Cuba

Recently, I went on a tour of Cuba, a bus tour that began and ended in Havana.  I took photographs as I went.  Most of the people on this tour were Americans, likely because they are allowed to travel to Cuba now.  The information below is based on my own observations, along with comments from our Cuban guide.

Cuba has two currencies.  The convertable peso, usually called a CUC, is maintained on par with the US dollar.  It’s used by tourists, and can only be exchanged with other currencies within Cuba.  The Cuban peso, usually called a CUP, is worth about 1/25 of a CUC.  It’s used by ordinary Cubans as wages and to purchase what they need.

You will see old American cars all over Cuba.  Most of them are taxis, with tourists as passengers.  They are kept in repair by their owners.  You’ll also see newer cars, from Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia, or Europe.  Many of them are also taxis.

The tourist buses are all made by Yutong, a large bus company in China.  There are older buses for Cubans.

You will see rows of market stalls everywhere, selling handicrafts to tourists.  The sellers are middlemen.  Prices are in CUCs.

There were musicians at every restaurant, even the buffet restaurants in our hotels.  I assume they were independant of the restaurants.  Whenever they came over to our table to play music, they collected a tip from most of the people at the table.  They also sold CDs of their music to people at our table.

The washrooms at restaurants and historic sites are for tourists.  There’s usually a woman seated at the entrance, selling toilet paper to women and paper towels to men.  One washroom I used had an electric hand dryer, but it was unplugged.  I wondered if the woman had unplugged it, but I still paid for a paper towel.

The airport at Havana was crowded and chaotic.  The currency exchange at the airport was my last opportunity to exchange CUCs for other currency.  I asked for Canadian dollars.  They didn’t have any.  I had to take American dollars instead, even though the government there takes 10% for itself.  At the airport, they did match my photograph with my passport, and did take my tourist visa.  Security there did X-ray my carry-on luggage.  I was happy to be on my way back to Canada.


A Muslim Christmas

It’s a simple question:  why isn’t there a Muslim Christmas?  It could be a mid-winter holiday, equivalent to Christmas.  Wouldn’t it be in the spirt of the things we all say at a Christmas holiday party?

Peace on earth.  Good will to all men.

Of course, a mid-winter holiday is limited to locations on earth that actually have winter.  This holiday generally came from a previous tradition, usually from thousands of years ago.  Conditions for a mid-winter holiday were only right in Europe.  In European cultures, Christianity replaced the mid-winter holiday with Christmas.

Even though Christianity originated in Palestine, when it spread to Europe, conditions were right for Christmas.  Europeans already had a mid-winter festival.  The replacement, Christmas, was a minor holy day.  Easter is the holiest day of the Christian calendar, symbolizing rebirth and redemption.  Christmas has been commercialized, making it a major secular holiday now.  Europeans also used a solar calendar, with Christmas occurring on a fixed day of that calendar.

What about hanukkah?  Of course, there’s no winter in the middle east, where Judiasm began.  Hanukkah is an ancient religious festival, unrelated to winter or Christmas.  Until recently, it was a minor holy day.  It does happen to occur in December, although it wanders throughout the month because of their lunar-solar calendar.  It does coincide with northern winter.  Sometimes it even coincides with Christmas.  Because of that timing, hanukkah has been adopted as the Jewish Christmas by some people.

There’s Kwanzaa too, even though there’s no winter in Africa.  Kwanzaa was created recently, in the USA.  It’s not widely celebrated.  There were hundreds of tribes in Africa, each with their own distictive culture.  Kwanzaa was intended to unify black people in the USA, people who are decended from African slaves, people who were torn from their original culture.  To some extent, it’s become the Christmas celebration for black people.

Can’t we do the same thing for Muslims?  First of all, there’s no winter in Arabia, where Islam began.  Secondly, there’s no existing holy day that can be used.  All of the Muslim holy days migrate year by year.  This behavior is a result of their lunar calendar.  For the same reason, festival days of earlier traditions also migrate across the European solar calendar.  There cannot be a Muslim Christmas.

In reality, Christmas is a Christian holiday.  It has been heavily commercialized.  Still, it can be a religious holiday, with Christian symbols and religious Christmas carols.  Of course, some Christmas celebrations are not very religious, just like some Christmas carols can be completely non-religious.  We certainly can welcome people from other cultures to a Christmas holiday party.  They may be uncomfortable in a Christian setting, but we can still open our arms, and our hearts, to them.


Net Neutrality

Recently, we’ve seen a change in US FCC policy intended to reverse the Obama-era ruling on net neutrality.  The original ruling had prevented Internet backbone companies from restricting bandwidth by services.  The proposed change is called Internet Freedom.  This name reminds me of doublethink in George Orwells‘ book 1984.  Its freedom for corporations, but not for individuals.  In fact, it’s simply deregulation with another name.

The intent of this change is to permit Internet companies to adjust bandwidth according to service.  The risk is that they may favour the services that they own, or may make independant services pay extra for bandwidth on their Internet backbones.

As I said, this change amounts to deregulation.  Wasn’t it deregulation of the banks that caused the 2008 recession?  Regulation is a legitimate function of government.  It’s not just needless red tape:  it’s there for a good reason.  Regulation is a way for governments to protect consumers.

Of course, the need for regulation depends on the amount of competition within an industry.  Good competition benefits consumers by maintaining lower prices.  Good competition also produces a hostile environment for companies, with tiny profit margins and the constant possibility of bankrupcy.

That’s why companies strive to eliminage competition by a variety of means.  They buy up other companies.  They drive others out of business.  They seek protection or subsidies from governments.  This move towards monopoly benefits companies and company owners, even as it deprives consumers of the benefits of competition.

Who is left to protect the consumer?  Only government is left.  They can prevent business activity that restricts competition.  If there are only a few large companies left in an industry, government can impose regulations on all of them.  That’s the reason that net neutrality must be maintained, so that all services can thrive, and so that consumers can choose fairly among services that are available on the Internet.


Hot Water is Good

Last Sunday, when I was making supper, I noticed that the hot water from the tap was not hot, but just warm.  Something was wrong.  I went down the basement to look at my hot water heater.  Water was dripping out the bottom, and running across the floor to the floor drain.  Fortunately, the stream of water missed all the furniture in the basement.  I shut off the cold water feed to the water heater, and mopped up the floor.  The red button on the gas controller had already popped up, meaning that the pilot light had gone out.

The sink was full of dirty dishes.  I had intended to put them in the dishwasher after supper.  That was no longer possible, with no hot water.  I had intended to have a shower the next morning.  That was also no longer possible.  There was no way I was going to have a cold shower.  The very thought made me shiver.  I was going to call the local plumbing and heating company in the morning to get a new water heater, but I didn’t know what they would say.  I was filled with anxiety.  Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well that night.

What am I going to do?  I thought about living conditions in the north of England, that I had read about in The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell.  The houses there had a single water tap, cold water only, over the kitchen sink.  People living there had to heat water on the stove for washing dishes or for filling the bathtub.  I could do that too, although I had an electric kettle instead.  How long would I have to live like that?

The next morning, I had breakfast with plastic utensils and the one plate I had left.  At 8:00 am, I called the plumbing and heating company.  I told them that I needed a new hot water heater.  The person I spoke to said that she was very sorry, but they couldn’t do it today.  I said “How about tomorrow?”, trying to be cooperative.  She asked me if I could hold the phone for a second.  She would be right back.  Five minutes later, she told me that they had shuffled things around, and that somebody would be there with a new water heater within the hour.  I was very grateful.

I’d been through this process before.  I had partially drained the tank.  I had a hot water tap left open all night to relieve the pressure.  The gas was off.  The furniture was out of the way.  There was a ring at my front door.  It was the first person from the plumbing and heating company.  The second showed up a few minutes later.  It took them less than an hour to install my new tank and haul the old one away.  They did an excellent job of installation.  I was very pleased.  When they left, the new tank was heating water.  I was happy to pay them.

I went out for lunch, but when I returned the hot water was hot.  This was wonderful.  I loaded all the dishes in the dishwasher, and started it running.  I had a shower.  Pretty soon, my life was back to normal.  I’d grown so used to hot water that I expected it to be there all of the time.  One little interruption was quite disruptive.  I was amazed by how dependant on hot water I had become.  I learned gratitude for the small comforts of life.