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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.

 

 

Inner Thermostat

I just read the article Three Signs You Have and Upper Limit Problem in the Huffington Post.  It refers to the book The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level.  The article states that we all have fixed limits for enjoyment, happiness, or success.  When we exceed these limits, we feel that our life has gotten out of control.  We engage in self-defeating behavior.  We believe that we don’t deserve such success.  Probably because of low self-esteem, we become the victim.  We sabotage ourselves, all to bring our level of enjoyment, happiness, or success back down to normal.

Doesn’t this sound like the saying “Don’t press your luck”?  You are risking failure if you go too far.  Somebody is watching you.  They will strike you down if you are too happy.  It’s the Presbyterian principle in action.  Maybe it’s just that you can’t handle success.  Of course, the cause of self-defeating behavior is always elusive.  It’s just something that happens, not anything that you’ve done.  It’s bad luck.  It’s a coincidence.  No no, it’s never intentional.

I remember hearing a fellow I know talking about his two adopted sons.  They both came from a difficult background.  He tried to help them as much as possible.  Still, he said that they repeatedly had the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  He meant that whenever they were at the point of achieving success in life, something happened that meant failure instead.  To some extent, he had given up on them.  He was focusing on grandchildren now: they were much better at succeeding.

I don’t recall engaging in any self-defeating behavior myself, but maybe I was just never aware of it.  I did learn that sometimes failure can simply be a result of less ability.  There’s no hidden meaning to it.  In fact, failure is a normal part of learning.  How can you learn without making mistakes?  It’s being persistent that counts.

The American Dream says that you can be anything that you want.  The opposite attitude says that what you can be is decided by fate.  Both attitudes are true.  Both are incorrect, too.  It really depends on your situation and your environment.  New situations and new environments may bring new opportunities.  There is something to be said for each of us having limits.  A big change would indeed be out of character for us.  Life would feel like it’s gotten out of control.  An achievement would be a good place for us to pause and reasess our lives.  It would give us time to develop a new character and a new normal state.

 

Family Unit

It’s been all over the news lately: foreign students are crammed into houses near the university.  These are rooming houses in all but name.  Neighbors have complained.  Actually, most of the complaints came from one neighbor.  Most of them were about one house, a former fraternity house.  The students were quiet and inoffensive, but neighbors could identify the houses by their unkempt yards, and of course by the numbers of students going in and out.

The owner of one house stated that it complied with all the regulations for single-family homes.  The house had three kitchens, one on each floor.  Many students lived there.  The city also responded to the publicity.  It confirmed that the house complied with the zoning regulations for a single-family house.  However, the councellor for the area claimed that the house was obviously not complient, and that more and better inspections were needed.

The bylaw for single-family homes states that the house must be occupied by one family unit.  What’s that anyway?  It can’t be limited to a married couple and their children.  That would leave out too many families.  It has to be broader than that.  The city defines a family unit as a group of people living together, with one person being responsible for paying the rent.  Maybe that’s too broad?

Housing, at least in new developments, is mostly single-family homes.  They are required to have some percentage of multiple-family homes, even though these are opposed by the developers and by the home owners.  Developers make more money from single-family homes; they’d prefer to have nothing but them.  Home owners believe that multi-family homes lower the value of their own homes by attracting undesirable people to their neighborhood.  They also maintain standards for yards;  they will complain about people who don’t mow their grass or remove their weeds.

Students, of course, like to stay near the university.  Many students live in room and board.  That’s a good arrangement for all concerned.  That’s what I did for the first couple of years that I attended university.  Boarding one or two students doesn’t seem to cause any problems with the neighbors.  I’ve also heard of a group of students getting together to rent a house.  This would be a house that’s normally rented to a family.  As long as the students were well-behaved, I’m sure the owner would be happy to rent the house to them.  What’s the difference?  Nothing, according to the city’s definition of a family unit.

I’d say that this is a minor problem, and not one that will be solved by tougher regulations.  Maybe that’s why it disappeared so quickly from the news.  Of course, the house that stirred up the complaints had three kitchens.  Should we regulate the number of kitchens?  Some houses have a separate suite with its own kitchen.  How about bathrooms?  How about bedrooms?  Do we really want to regulate all these things?  Doing that sounds way too complicated to me.  I don’t want to live in that sort of neighborhood.

 

Freedom of Information

Should government information be kept secret?  Should it be made public?  I suppose there are valid reasons for keeping it secret, strategic reasons or personal reasons for example.  There’s also information that should be made public.  Governments should not be engaging in political activity and keeping that secret, for example.

Journalism is one way that government information could be made public.  It’s also a fair way, since news media occupy different places in the political spectrum.  However, I just read about an example of how the Government of Canada controls and limits information flow to journalists.  It reminds me of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984.  Journalists should develop contacts within government.  They should conduct interviews with government officials and hold press conferences with them.  If any of these conduits are blocked, government could well be too secret for the good of the public.

Recently, the Freedom of Information request has been the only way to get information out of government.  It does provide a strong legal framework and present an obligation to government departments and agencies.  Perhaps it’s even fairer than before.  However, my impression is that it’s also used as a way to conceal information from journalists and the public.

Then we have statements made to the press on condition of anonymity.  How can we judge the accuracy of this information, or the motives of this anonymous person?  We have to trust the journalist in this case.  There is nobody else.  No doubt the statement was approved by somebody in government before it was released.

What about leaks?  How many of them are real?  How many of them are fabricated to look like leaks?  The US government has been prosecuting leakers lately, in spite of public sentiment and legislation that favours whistle-blowers.  They seem to want you to turn in your colleagues, but not your bosses.  Of course, if somebody within government is sufficiently aggrieved and sufficiently motivated, one of the remedies open to them is to leak the information.  This will always happen, in the absence of better remedies.

The trend recently seems to be for governments to get into the business of publishing information.  They build up their public relations department, and decree that all information given to journalists and to the public must come from this department.  They’ve long send out press releases, of course.  Now they are putting information on their web sites, and even producing video clips.  It’s bound to be self-serving.  News media that are in a hurry or that have limited funds may be tempted to use this information, even though they couldn’t confirm it.

The ultimum in information seems to be Wikileaks.  Here we find out that governments say one thing in public but another thing in private.  Of course, they claim that everybody does it.  Is everybody deceitful?  I certainly hope that most countries are open and honest.  In practice, all countries act in their own self-interest, even if that conflicts with the principles they espouse.

Spies may obtain the same information as Wikileaks, but they keep it secret.  They can’t let their target know that they’ve been spied upon.  Sometimes they can’t even act on their secret knowledge because doing that may reveal their knowledge.  This is a shadowy world of secret knowledge.  It’s completely opposite to public access to information.  It’s a type of access that must be avoided.

 

Canadian TRC

The Truth and Reconcilliation Commision just released the executive summary of their final report.  This summary is almost 400 pages, but it’s worth reading.  The abuse of Canadian Indians in residential schools is well documented there.  Theodore (Ted) Fontaine’s book Broken Circle describes his residential school experiences in more detail.

I’ve been comparing the Canadian Truth and Reconcilliation Commision with what I know of the South African body of the same name.  The two have some history in common.  The policy to deprive native people of their language, culture, and religion seems to have been the main one.  This may be abhorrent today, but it was the approach taken by all colonial governments in the recent past.

In the South African case, it was the native African majority that was abused by the Boer and British minorities.  After the African National Congress took power, and Nelson Mandela became president, the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission was formed to investigate this abuse.  At the time, it was still a recent memory for all people involved.  The commission had a broad scope, providing a platform for reconcilliation.  It heard from both victims and perpetrators of abuse.  Many of their stories were painful just to listen to.  Their commission did much to bring the two sides together.

The Canadian case was different.  In Canada, the native people were a minority.  European immigrants and settlers, and their descendants were the majority.  These people, to a large extent, also formed the government.  Most of the abuse happened 50 or 100 years ago.  Memories are fading, even when they are passed along to younger generations.  The Truth and Reconcilliation Commision had a narrow scope, mostly focusing on residential schools.  Most of the people who told their stories to the commision are victims of residential school policies.  The people who devised these policies are all dead now.  The commission’s report is really a plea for reconcilliation, along with a series of actions that need to be taken to achieve this.  It will be interesting to see if the government will follow the path mapped out in the report.

No doubt there will be many detractors of this report and its recommendations.  The more extreme of them will say that it’s just another waste of money.  They’ll say that they are not responsible, because it all happened in the past.  They’ll say that Indians don’t deserve a better life, because it’s their fault.  No doubt they’ll say the same thing about any poor people.  They certainly won’t be interested in reconcilliation.

As far as I can see, the only thing the two commissions have in common is the name.  The Canadian one brings hope for the future, along with a plea for reconcilliation.  I wish I were more optimistic, but I only see lots of talk with little action coming up.  At least the report points the way to reconcilliation.

 

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