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Public and Private

It’s in the news lately:  Should services be delivered by government agencies or private companies?  The new leader of the federal conservatives has promised to defund the CBC, a publicly-owned broadcaster.  The PC government of this province is starting a study of Manitoba Hydro International, a profit-making arm of a government corporation.

The answer seems to depend on political ideology.  The conservatives want to reduce government services, favoring private corportations.  The socialists want more government services, limiting private corporations.

Of course, there is some agreement.  Both groups agree that some services are naturally public and some are naturally private.  These are the two ends of a continuum.  They disagree on where the dividing line should be placed.

There are some criteria that might help in this decision.  If the service is carrying out government policy, it should be a government agency.  If it’s in competition with private companies, it should be private too.

In either case, government regulations are important.  They are required for employee health and safety.  They are also required to control a monopoly market, for the protection of consumers.


Role of Police

Calls for the defunding of police have been in the news lately.  Apparently, this does not mean disbanding the police, but just reducing their funding.  It’s more like reform than anything else.

I must tell you that I’ve had almost no contact with police, other than the occasional traffic ticket.  When I did interact with them, they have always been polite and respectful.  Still, when we talk of police reform, we should first consider the proper role of police in society.

One view is that legislative bodies create laws and police enforce these laws.  That idea seems reasonable, but is not quite accurate.  It’s the court system that enforces laws.  In particular, police should never administer punishment; that’s clearly up to the judicial system.  Police only do pickup and delivery, meaning that they arrest people and then turn them over to the court system.  Courts of law may convict people and may punish them.

Police should never obtain their own funding, because doing that always gives rise to a conflict of interest.  This means that money from traffic tickets, or from confiscated property should never go directly to the police.

Another view is that the police force is a service to the public; they do things that the public wants, but which the public won’t do itself.  For example, the public may want to control anti-social behavior.  Police can’t do things like that on their own initiative; there has to be a law first.

Of course, governments often bypass the court system, by mandating the police to collect fines, for example.  Collecting fines is not a proper role for police, either.

I hope that calls to reform police is not seen as an opportunity to ban police unions.  Under existing labour legislation, unions are able to negotiate on behalf of their members.  This right is especially needed when the employer is the government.  Unions have a proper role to advocate for their members.  Of course, it’s not proper for them to conceal or fabricate information; they must be truthful.

Finally, beware of management by budget.  That’s too simplistic.  Governments must work together with police leaders to determine which services to change and which to leave as they are.


The Saga of the Microwave Oven

I bought my first microwave oven in 1988.  I’ve used it every day since then.  I was a Panasonic 500 Watt model.  It still works, but has given me trouble every few years.  The main problem is the button used to open the door.  The first time it broke, I went down to an appliance repair shop to get a replacement button.  It worked fine for a few more years and then broke in the same place.  That time, I repaired the button with two-part super glue and a plastic brace.  This worked for a few more years, and then broke the same way.

By then, I didn’t bother getting another replacement part.  After all, it was the same as the original.  It would only break again the same way.  Instead, I learned to open the door by sticking my finger in the hole where the button used to be, and pressing the release lever with my finger.

I did that for many more years, but this year the beeper became almost silent.  It was time to get a new microwave oven.  I looked at what was available in the stores now.  There were no 500 Watt models.  They started at 700 Watts.  That’s what I’d have to get.  They all had the same features.  There was no choice there either.  About all I could do was to purchase the lowest price model.

My new microwave oven works almost the same as my old one used to.  About the only difference is that I can no longer key in the time and power settings in advance, so that I only needed to press the Start button when I was ready to cook something.  Instead, I had to wait until I was ready, and then key in everything.  I wonder how long it will be before something breaks.


Taking a Risk

People don’t understand risk, at least some people don’t.  Some people buy lottery tickets, after all.  They wouldn’t buy them if they understood risk, if they understood that their chance of winning was extremely small.

Now that COVID-19 has lept into the public consciousness, understanding risk has become very important.  There is no treatment for the disease, and no preventative.  Even the effects are unclear.  It’s had a great deal of publicity.  All in all, COVID-19 is very scary.  Some people are terrified of it.

Stay home, they keep telling us.  Some people attempt to reduce the risk to zero by staying home.  It can’t be done.  There’s always a risk.  Your house could burn down with you in it, staying home.

Each risk can be expressed as a probability.  Some people don’t understand decimal points.  Maybe that’s entirely the problem.  In that case, express them as percentages.  0.01 becomes 1%.  All risks involves some unknown factors.  Will you be affected, or will somebody else, for example.  Probabilities are the only way to consider risks.  As probabilities, you can compare risks or ignore tiny risks.  One scientific study declared that there was no safe level for drinking alcohol.  A critic pointed out that there was no safe level for eating chocolate cake, either.  You can’t consider risks in isolation: you have to compare them.  After all, people do drink alcohol.  People do eat chocolate cake.  Life is a series of risks.  All you can do is take reasonable precautions.

You could die from fire, from disease, or just from crossing the street.  There’s also smoking, drinking, or just eating.  Risks are everywhere.  We can’t avoid them.

Of course, there are situations where our mind intensifies the apparent risk.  It might happen to somebody that you know.  It might be an over-dramatized story in the media.  It might receive a great deal of publicity.  The only way to be realistic about this sort of risk is to put it in context.


Assault-style Weapon Ban

You’ve probably heard about the recent mass shooting incident in Nova Scotia.  It got a great deal of publicity.  It was a frightening event.  People saw it as a threat to them.  There was a public outcry to do something.  The government did do something.  In spite of the fear and the publicity, mass shootings are a relatively rare event.

Individual shootings are much more common.  They usually begin as a dispute between two people.  It ends with one person shooting the other, usually with a hand gun.  People tend to overlook this type of shooting, dismissing it as only criminals killing other criminals.  Indeed, there’s no threat to the general public.  There’s also almost no public outcry to do something.  Even though there’s a larger number of victims, people generally don’t care about individual shootings.

What the government did was to place a ban on assault-style rifles.  These are replicas of military assault rifles, except that they are semi-automatic only.  Fully automatic rifles are already banned.  There’s also a new ban on large calibre rifles and weapons with a high penetrating power.  The government felt compelled to do something, even though there is no good solution to the problem.

Should we have a complete ban on guns?  There’s a range of opinions on this question.  People who want guns banned are mostly living in urban areas and feel threatened by guns.  People who oppose a ban are gun shop owners, hunters, target shooters, and gun collectors.  It’s not possible to reconcile the two groups.  You might wonder about my own attitude to guns.  I’m not a gun owner.  Still, I try to be impartial, and to consider both sides of this issue.

Hand guns are not banned, but they are severely restricted, amounting to almost a ban.  You require a permit to purchase a hand gun, a permit to transport it, and a permit to carry it.  Most of the owners are target shooters.

Canada has the same problem with guns an shootings as does the US.  Only the laws are different between the two countries.

An assault-style gun is only a style of weapon.  They look threatening because they are a replica of a military weapon.  To some extent, it’s an image problem.  In this country, it’s already difficult to get assault-style rifles through illegal channels.  Some mass shootings were done with them, but others were not.  For example, in the 2014 Parliament Hill attack, the shooter used a Winchester lever-action rifle, not an assault rifle.  As well, the police raid photographs show mostly hunting rifles and shotguns, along with a few sawed-off weapons and home-made hand guns.

I wrote before that there was no good solution.  The real problem is criminals with guns.  Of course, people tolerate a certain level of criminality, depending on who is being shot.  We need to prevent guns being available to criminals.  We also need to prevent mass shootings, even if they are not very frequent.

There are some partial solutions to problems with guns.  One is to make firearms more difficult to obtain illegally.  This action may only raise the price, but that result is still acceptable.  Another is to involve the police to a greater extent.  This activity will certainly require funding.  It may also raise the spectre of surveillance.  A careful balance is necessary.


Bernie Gunther Novels

These are a whole series of novels written by Philip Kerr.  So far, I’ve read three of them.  They are both historical novels and detective fiction.  They are set in and around the time of the second world war, in Berlin, in Germany, in territory captured by Germany during the war, and even in unexpected places like the French Riviera.

Each novel is centered around an historical event.  This provides the factual component of the story.  It’s narrated by a fictional detective, Bernie Gunther, who plays a major part in the event.  Each story features an unfolding mystery, and reveals more of the personality of the detective.  The detective, and the writing, provide an element of realism to bring the whole story alive.  There’s always local colour, such as: over horsemeat steaks.

Bernie himself was a German soldier in world war one, and then a police officer and police detective in Berlin.  He was also a private detective.  During world war two, he was a German military officer and a prisoner in a soviet POW camp.  After he escaped from the camp, he was living under a false name.

I was drawn to these novels because I like historical novels and because I like police mystery novels.  They are a good blend of the two types.  As well, I found Bernie to be an interesting character, one that was almost out of place in the setting of each novel.


200 Years Ago

I’ve been reading Charles Dickens’ novels.  They are set in a different world, one that difficult to imagine because it’s so different from today’s world.

It was a world before Internet, before television, before radio, even before the telephone.  Their only means of communication was mail.  It, though, was highly developed, with two mail deliveries per day.

Transportation was on horseback, or by carriages, wagons, or carts pulled by horses.  People often walked from town to town, if they could not afford to go by horse-drawn vehicle.  Some walked from one end of England to another.

Houses were heated by fireplaces in each room.  They burned coal or wood.  If people couldn’t afford fuel, they shivered in the cold.  Light came from candles, oil lamps, and eventually gas lamps.

Medicine was completely different from the way it is today.  Nobody knew the cause of disease, although they often speculated that it was caused by stagnant water or by rotting garbage.  The first vaccination used cow pox serum to inoculate people against smallpox, a terrible disease at the time.  The first anti-vaccination movement appeared shortly afterward.  There were plenty of doctors, but they dispensed pills and helped people as they could.  Doctors relied on their reputations.  They were powerless to cure most diseases.  In fact, treatment of diseases was primitive.  People would sprinkle vinegar around the bedroom of a sick person in an attempt to prevent spread of the disease.

Social classes were more rigid than they are now.  People of the gentleman class had a house full of servants.  Working people had jobs but still could only afford one or two servants.  Sometimes working people couldn’t afford even one.  Poor people, of course, had no servants.  Women had only one future: to get married, have children, and care for a household.  Women’s work was knitting, embroidery, or mending.

Many types of people appeared in these novels.  Some were always good.  Some were always evil.  Some were selfish.  Others were generous.  Some people changed their personalities in the course of time.  Others never changed.  Does this sound familiar?  It should.  People 200 years ago were the same as today.


More Memories of my Mother

My parents were married for 76 years.  They received a letter from the queen on their 75th wedding anniversary.  My mother died in November.  My father died about a year earlier.  My mother found enjoyment in many different things throughout her full life.

Perhaps most of all, she enjoyed gardening, growing both flowers and vegetables.  Every time they moved, she started a new garden.  Her gardens were too random in my opinion, but I’m sure she liked them that way.  Inside the house, she had house plants on all the window sills.  I wouldn’t be able to care for so many plants, but it was no trouble for her.

She also liked reading.  She read mostly novels, all from the library.  I recall taking my mother on a tour of a local book store, the one where I often buy books.  She was impressed, but didn’t buy a book, saying that she got all of hers from the library.

She liked candy, although only in small quantities.  She told me recently about a visit to her dentist:  he told her that her teeth were in good condition, but she should stay away from candy.  She didn’t tell him that she’d been eating candy every day of her life, and wasn’t about to stop then.  Yes, she liked candy.

She also like ice cream.  Her father was part owner of a creamery.  She told me that when she was a little girl, she would go down to visit her father at the creamery.  His office was on the second floor.  After they had talked for a while, he would say “you deserve an ice cream cone”, and “go downstairs, tell them who you are, and they will make you an ice cream cone”.  Of course, they all knew who she was, but she announced it anyway.  They made her an ice cream cone, and she walked home eating ice cream.

She had a sewing machine, and liked making clothes for the entire family.  I recall that I once lamented that I would have to throw my winter coat away because the zipper was faulty.  This was after she had stopped sewing.  She told me to go to any tailor shop, and they would replace the zipper.  She was right.  I’ve done that several times.

My mother also liked pets, usually dogs.  She was thrilled one time when my father gave her a little puppy as a birthday gift.  It was the best gift ever.

She liked helping people in any way that she could.  She used to volunteer at the local hospital, back when hospitals had volunteers.  She also supported many charities that helped people or animals.  Her heart was certainly in the right place.

I’ll miss my mother.  She made a positive difference to my life, and to many other people’s lives as well.


Memories of my Mother

My mother died in November.  She was 98 years old.  My memories of her were contaminated because of my visits to her in the hospital and in the nursing home.  I prefer to remember her earlier, when she was healthy.

My mother was always at home when I was growing up.  She looked after the children.  She took care of the house too.  My father was away most of the time.  When he was home, the two of them would often go out with their friends, leaving me and my brothers with my aunt or a baby sitter.

Most of my memories of my mother are associated with food.  This is probably normal for family life at that time.  When I came home from school at noon, mother had lunch ready.  I still remember cheese dreams, made with bread, cheese, tomato, and bacon, cooking under the broiler.

She use to do Christmas baking.  I recall mince tarts, stollen, shortbread stars, and cookies with a pink meringue topping.  She also made healthy food.  I recall sunflower seeds in the salad.  When she and my father moved from a house to a senior’s home, where all of the meals were prepared in a common kitchen and served in a large dining room, my mother said that she liked cooking, and missed cooking meals for the family.

I remember sitting at the dinner table with my mother, my father, my brothers, and my aunt and my grandfather.  I looked forward to dessert.  Often she gave us pie or cake or ice cream.  Once she gave us butter tarts.  Normally they’d be wonderful, but that time mine had broken glass in it.  It crunched when I bit into it.  She had broken the light bulb in the refrigerator, and one of the glass fragments had fallen into one of the butter tarts, the one that I got.  I stopped eating butter tarts when that happened.  Even now, I bite into them very carefully, just in case I detect broken glass.

She used to have a milk man, a bread man, and an egg man, all delivering food to the house.  She must have fed me too many eggs, as I soon learned to dislike them, especially if I could see the runny yolks.  I do eat eggs now, but only when they are scrambled.

When I was small, she would serve everyone a little pile of cooked onions, along with meat and potatoes.  I wouldn’t eat the onions, even when my parents tried to force me to eat them.  It’s a curious thing that I like cooked onions now, and eat them whenever I have the opportunity.  I suppose I was just too young for them when I was small.

I remember one occasion when my mother and father went out, leaving me to prepare dinner for myself.  I must have been a visitor at that time.  Mother told me that I could find lots of food in the freezer.  I found a chicken pot pie that looked good to me.  I followed the package directions, cooking it in the oven.  When I put my fork through the top crust, I discovered that it wasn’t chicken like I’d expected:  It was leftovers.  I was hungry.  I ate it anyway.  When mother returned home, I told her about the deception.  She laughed and told me that leftovers were good.  I got no sympathy there!


What is Democratic

The original democracy was in ancient Athens.  It sounds pretty good, but it’s not what we would call democracy today.  The principle was that any citizen of Athens could participate, by proposing motions or voting on them.  The catch, though, was the meaning of the word citizen.  It excluded women, slaves, and foreigners.  That’s most of the population of Athens!

I was asked to sign a petition recently.  The person collecting signatures told me I didn’t have to sign if I didn’t want to.  That’s how petitions work, of course.  I sign if I agree with the proposition.  I don’t sign if I disagree.  The petition carries only signatures of people who agree.  There’s no place for those who disagree.  That’s not democratic at all.  Fortunately, the people who receive the petition understand how petitions work: they know that petitions represent only one side of a question.

Demonstrations are similar to petitions, except that they involve a group of people gathering in a public area.  Demonstrations must also be for or against something.  They are effective when only a small fraction of the population demonstrates.  That’s not a majority.  That’s not democratic.  You only join a demonstration if you agree with them.  Again, it’s one-sided.  That’s not democratic.  The modern equivalent of demonstrations seems to be outrage on social media, although it doesn’t have the same visual effect.  Demonstrations still have their place.  Failed demonstrations, on the other hand, provide an opportunity for an armed group like the military to force the change.

What about elections?  Aren’t they democratic?  They are, with some reservations.  Elections can be subverted.  Political parties can be outlawed.  Candidates can be jailed or executed.  Most of the time, though, elections are democratic.  However, there must also be a culture of democracy and democratic institutions.

Is a revolution democratic?  It’s a way to overthrow a government, often a repressive government.  Many countries have had a successful revolution.  Sometimes it’s the only way to cause a change of government.  Just don’t expect the new government to be democratic.  Often revolutions are carried out by a small group in their own self-interest.  A revolution could lead to a democracy, of course, but there’s no guarantee that it will.

Finally, there’s a military coup.  They are never democratic.  It’s another case of the end justifies the means.  We all know that that’s wrong.  Even promises of democratic elections to come cannot be trusted.  The military in a democratic country should always be under the control of democratically elected politicians, not the other way around.