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The Fundamental Problem

The government of Canada recently announced a ban on single-use plastic products. The ban covered grocery bags, straws, foam take-out containers, cutlery, and can rings. All of these products have been the subject of negative publicity. All of them have non-plastic alternatives.

The fundamental problem is the attempt to recycle low-value products. After all, they were intended to be disposable, and designed for lowest cost. Indeed, one shopping bag is not a problem, but millions of bags are a problem. A ban is a reasonable solution.

These products are not accepted by most city recycling programs, although the policy varies somewhat from city to city.

The products are difficult to recycle, for a variety of reasons. They typically contain only a small amount of plastic. The material may be multi-layer. The product may be contaminated with food, meaning that it must be cleaned as part of the recycling process.

Good Things Happen in Threes

An old saying is: good things happen in threes. Or is it: bad things happen in threes? The exact expression doesn’t matter. A better statement is: random events happen in clusters. The result might be a one-dimensional random distribution, like you get by flipping a coin. Notice the runs of one side. The result might also be a two-dimensional random distribution, like you get by throwing darts at a sheet of paper. Notice the groups of holes. Patterns are normal in random distributions.

So, what does random mean? It’s a mathematical concept, meaning that past events do not affect the next event. In essence, the results are unpredictable. It’s not a natural phenomenon. The cause of each random event is unknown.

There’s the curious example of luminous insects on a cave ceiling: they glow like stars in the sky. Visitors call them random. In fact, the distribution is not random and is highly predictable. The insects space themselves out so as to be as far as possible from their insect neighbors. There are no patterns visible in this sky.

Of course, people do not like unpredictable events. Your mind seeks a cause for everything, even when there is no cause. People even invent a cause, just to have one.

Dickens’ World

I’ve been rereading my collection of Charles Dickens’ novels. They describe the England of about 200 years ago. The world is completely different, but people are mostly the same.

Electricity had not been discovered yet. People lit their houses with candles. In old houses, the ceilings were black from all of the candle smoke. They did have gas lamps, but it wasn’t natural gas that they burned. It was manufactured gas, made from coal. Needless to say, there was no telegraph or telephone. Mail moved at the speed of horses.

Houses did not have central heating: it hadn’t been invented yet, at least on a wide scale. Instead, there was a fireplace in every room, including the bedrooms. Most of the fireplaces, and also the kitchen stove, burned coal. There was no insulation in the walls.

Petroleum also had not been discovered yet. There were no cars or trucks. Horses were everywhere. Wealthy people rode in carriages or on horseback. Poor people walked or looked for a ride on a wagon or carriage. Houses belonging to wealthy families had a stable for the horses, and a groom to look after them.

Medicine was in a primitive state 200 years ago. Doctors did the best they could without antibiotics and without anesthetic. In fact, doctors did not know the cause of disease and did not understand infection. In the face of urgent need, doctors did set broken bones, and did perform surgery, including amputations. Medicines were mostly tonics or stimulants.

Houses had no running water. They got water from a pump in the back yard. If the water needed to be heated, they used the kitchen stove for that. Likewise, houses had no sewers or drains. They did have a cess pit in the basement where the servants emptied the chamber pots. Of course, only wealthy people had servants.

Could you live in that world?

Unmarked Graves Are Not Evidence

The news lately has been full of accounts of unmarked graves found near former residential schools, as if they were evidence of abuse that occurred there. The graves were located with ground-penetrating radar. Most people may not understand what this radar reveals. It’s only areas of soil disturbance. Such an area is likely a grave, particularly if many of them are grouped into a grid pattern. This would be an abandoned cemetery of unmarked graves. It’s certainly not a mass grave in any sense of the word. In fact, there might be only one new grave per year.

Indeed, the graves could have had markers. They could have been lost or removed later. The cemetery could have been shared, for example, by the school, the church, the hospital, the town, or the Indian band. The operator of the cemetery had to keep a record, just to know where to dig next. The record may not contain names or dates. It may have been lost when the cemetery was abandoned.

Children died in normal times, particularly before the many discoveries of modern medicine were made, and in poor living circumstances. Many more of them died in years of epidemics. We have forgotten about epidemics of the past. Smallpox, cholera, influenza, and tuberculosis tore through many communities.

We do have some reliable evidence. Certainly, eye-witness testimony is a good example. Family history is another. Residential schools were in operation for more than 100 years. No doubt there was some sexual abuse. There was also many intentional deprivations. Children were deprived of their language, their culture, and their religion. Evidence of that is not to be found in unmarked graves.

Globalization is a Sham

I’m using the USA as an example because it was a leader in globalization. The term itself is quite easy to state and to understand. It simply means production and consumption in separate locations. It’s a low cost solution, one that requires low cost transportation. This is often provided by bulk carriers or large container ships. The low cost also requires low or absent tariffs.

The real motive for globalization is export without import. In fact, that’s what every country wants. It also provides for convenient disposal of surplus production. Unfortunately, export without import is impossible; You would have all sellers with no buyers. The next thing is import of raw materials, with export of finished products. That’s exactly what the colonizers did. That didn’t work either.

The result was that finished products were manufactured in other countries. Did you notice that all toasters and microwave ovens came from China? That situation was detrimental to the US. Next came supply chain disruptions. Something had to change.

We just saw some of the constraints on international trade. To engage in it safely, countries have to balance costs and risks. Some solutions may increase costs. Some tariffs may need to increase to protect local production. Competition is a critical ingredient because it provides multiple sources of supply, and because it may reduce costs. National security may require local production, but too much local production may bring isolation from the rest of the world. That’s why a compromise and a balance is required.

Now we have a new strategy, with a new name for globalization and with new policies. Will they give us what we really want?

Five Dystopic Novels

I did a great deal of reading during the COVID-19 lockdown. I did some reading before that too, although not as much. Only a few of them were dystopic novels. In fact, I was surprised that I had read so many. I usually read a variety of fiction and non-fiction books. These are the five dystopic novels:

The novel 1984 was written by George Orwell. In this one, the future is the manipulation of people by government, using the technique of thought control.

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the future of mankind is genetic engineering, accomplished by artificial child development.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood describes a world of forced surrogacy, combined with an authoritarian government.

In Jennifer Government by Max Barry, the future concerns the rise of private companies, with a corresponding decline of governments. In this novel, the government must be self-supporting, without taxation powers.

Finally, there was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The future is living life in computer games, the only entertainment available to people.

Fortunately, none of the futures described in these novels has actually happened. Still, they show how people can adapt to the situation they are in. They also show how easily people can be manipulated, although it’s never all of them. In general, they show how fragile our society can be.

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.