Skip to content

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.

 

How the Memory Works

Do you believe that recalling a memory is like watching a movie, and that it’s an accurate rendition of a past event?  That’s the old concept of memory recall.  It’s an illusion, one that’s created by your mind.

There’s now a quite different concept of memory.  Most of it comes from the work of Elizabeth Loftus, a notable researcher on human memory.

Memories are mutable, meaning that they can be changed, and that fake memories can be introduced.  They still seem real and complete, thanks to the illusion.

Past incidents that we remember are stored as a series of fragments in our brain.  This new idea means that we cannot discover new details by concentrating on a memory: the information is simply not there.  I saw this happen in a detective story that I watched.  The detective asked a witness to review her memory of a visit to a tailor shop, and tell him if a pair of shears was hanging on a peg on the wall.  That’s the old movie concept.  It’s impossible.

When we recall a past incident, our mind accesses the fragments.  We fill in the gaps from our general knowledge, from our understanding of how the world works.  This is an illusion that seems accurate and logical, because our mind makes it so.  In reality, memories are always reconstructed.  Memories are also unreliable, because they are reconstructed from fragments.

When we cease recalling the incident, the fragments are stored anew in our brain.  It’s easy for memories to be altered or for false memories to be implanted.  Because we recall a previous memory, memories can change with each recall.  Memories can even disappear.  This happens if we are somehow prevented from storing the fragments.

Experiencing reality works just like recalling a memory.  Like a memory, it’s an incomplete record of reality.  You can’t see behind your back, for example.  Again, we fill in the gaps from our general knowledge.  Our mind makes reality seem real.

 

What is Racist

It was big news.  Prime minister Justin Trudeau was wearing blackface or brownface.  The pictures were from an Arabian Nights party in 2001 or earlier.  The election campaign faltered.  Trudeau apologized.  Some people were shocked.  Others were unconcerned.

Was it the return of the colonial attitude of white people towards people with black or brown skins?  In those days, white Europeans saw the natives of Africa, Asia, and the Americas as savage people.  They were uncivilized and inferior.  They had a savage language and savage religion.  Of course, we see now that this was a generalization and a stereotype.

We all have a fear of people who are different from ourselves.  This attitude comes from a need to predict quickly who might be a friend and who might be an enemy.  It’s quite natural, a first impression.  It’s something that most people learn to suppress or to overcome through exposure to other people and respect for them.  This feeling couldn’t be racism.

What then is racism?  The obvious example is discrimination because of apparent differences.

There are many borderline cases.  They might be just a milder form of racism.  In this specific instance, it was a prime minister wearing blackface.  Dressing up like a person of another race would be similar.  This behavior may not be explicitly racist.  It is, however, symbolic of past injustices.  It’s a racist act if non-white people are offended by it.  Some were and some were not.

What then is racism?  We need a definition that works.  It’s usually expressed by overt actions or words, but it could be anything that promotes hatred towards or discrimination against other groups of people.

 

Recycling is a Mess

My information for this blog comes from a variety of sources.  Some of the information may be incorrect.  I welcome corrections.  I have no inside knowledge of recycling in this city.

Our residential recycling system is probably similar to programs in other cities.  We have a blue bin and a black bin.  The city mandates what materials we can put in the blue bin.  It’s primarily food containers, but not plastic bags or polystyrene foam of any sort.  Two companies have a contract to pick up waste.  They also pick up yard waste and garbage.  Both deliver the blue bin contents to a single sort facility.

The sort facility does a crude sort by type of material.  Nobody there looks at the numbers on the bottom of each plastic container.  The result of the sort is many different types of material to be recycled.  All plastic and composites are grouped together.  These are mainly food containers and bottles.  Another group is paper and cardboard, mixed together.  Aluminum cans are separated.  They are mostly soft drink cans and beer cans.  Steel cans, often called tin cans, are separated.  They are mostly food containers.  Glass bottles and jars make up another category.

Most products are crushed and baled for shipment to companies that will pay for them.  Steel cans go to a smelter for steel scrap.  Aluminum cans are melted down and made into thin aluminum sheet that’s used for more cans.

Mixed plastic used to be shipped overseas for additional sorting.  They were sorted by hand in asia, for example.  Now that must be done here.  A major barrier is that the recycling labels on plastic container were not designed for automation.  Those labels must be redesigned.  Until that happens, sorting can only be done by eye and hand.

There’s also a fundamental problem with the design of plastic containers:  They were intended to be discarded, not to be recycled.  Food producers are mainly concerned with keeping the cost of their products as low as possible.  Somebody else will do the recycling.  Only regulations can change this philosophy.

Composites are also a problem.  They require a specialized recycling process.  Most of them are not recycled now.

Many types of waste have no market.  Paper and cardboard is an example.  They might have to be subsidized.  Part of the reason is the shrinking newsprint market.  De-inking used newspaper is too expensive.  Only the cellulose fibre from paper and cardboard can be recycled.  It might be used in products like shingles or insulation.

Glass here has no market.  It’s crushed and stockpiled at the landfill site, all because it’s not economical to recycle glass.

We put recycling material in the blue bin.  Once a week, it disappears.  I suppose most people are content with that arrangement.  What happens to the material afterwards is not their concern.  The city, of course, has to impose a tax to pay for recycling, and has an incentive to keep that tax as low as possible.  I despair that nothing will change in the future.

 

Complaints to 911

Have you been awakened by an alert on your mobile phone recently?  As the first step, the police come to a decision to issue an alert.  It might be to enlist the public’s help in finding a missing child, for example.  The police fill out a template and have the alert sent to all mobile phones in a specific area.  A siren sound and the message appears on all phones in that area.  I’ve never seen an alert myself because my phone is set to airplane mode all of the time.  Most people don’t do this: they hear and see the alert.

The message itself describes the incident and includes the instruction to call 911 with information that would aid police.

Most people accept the need for the alerts and do not complain about them.  In spite of this acceptance, there’s no reliable evidence that they are effective in resolving the issue.

People do have complaints, usually about being woken up by the alert.  Sometimes they are about the frequency of alerts.  Sometimes people object that they have no information to contribute.  The alert itself has no number for complaints, and no way to complain about the alert.  Some people call 911 to complain, even though 911 is intended only for emergencies.

The police response to these complaints is to denigrate the callers, often calling them stupid.  They do not tell them the proper way to complain.

There’s even a petition to fine complainers who call 911.  The problem with petitions is that they are one-sided: there’s no way to oppose the proposition, except by not signing.

The solution to mis-directed complaints is simple.  Tell them how to complain.  Stop calling them stupid.

What can be changed with the alert system?  Of course, there will always be complaints.  They are caused by compelling people to get alerts.  Most people want to help find a missing child, for example.  What we need is a mechanism to handle complaints.  Some of them are legitimate, after all.  Ignoring them is not a solution.

We could also have different levels of alerts, some of which would not be as invasive as the current alerts.  These could be used for different geographical areas, or at different times of day.

The alert system now is broken.  There’s no individual opt-out, except by turning the phone off.  People who want to use telecom services all the time are compelled to get the alerts too.  There’s also no effective way to complain about alerts.

 

Missing and Murdered

It’s called The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.  You can read their reports at this site.  Their purpose is to investigate the staggering rates of violence against indigenous women and girls.

I wanted to read their report just to learn more about the problem.  In particular, I wanted to put the problem into context.  I wanted a comparison.  After all, a comparison might show that the level of violence is indeed disproportionate.  It might justify the inquiry and its focus on women and girls.

I was disappointed.  I didn’t find any mention of comparisons.  I did find in their preliminary report that the level of violence against indigenous women was many time higher than against women in the general population.  So, it certainly is disproportionate.  However, I found nothing on aboriginal women versus aboriginal men.  That might have explained the inquiry’s focus on women.

They had something called an executive summary.  That sounded like a good starting point.  I tried to read it, but it was much too long: 120 pages.  That’s not a summary.  Nobody will read it.  Perhaps that unreadable summary accounts for all the media attention on the word genocide.

The summary consisted mostly of personal testimony from victims or relatives of victims.  Certainly they wanted to tell their story.  Certainly there was unbearable pain and suffering.  The summary did include some information on causes of the violence and a series of recommendations to reduce or eliminate the violence.  It seems to be mainly publicity for the amount of pain and suffering revealed.

I expect that nobody will provide the context that I wanted.  Perhaps journalists will provide summaries that are better than the one included with the final report.  Mainly, I expect that the results of the inquiry will soon be forgotten.  This outcome would be unfortunate, but could be inherent in the design of the report or the mandate of the inquiry.

 

Shantaram

The book Shantaram is from 2003.  I read it recently, after seeing it in the bargain section of a local bookstore.  I almost bought it then, but decided to get another book.  Shortly afterwards, I noticed it in a little free library on my street.  I couldn’t resist.  The book was written by Gregory David Roberts, who grew up in Australia, but now lives in Bombay, India.

The first thing people will notice about Shantaram is its size: it’s over 900 pages long.  Some people will reject it for that reason.  Those who are used to reading long novels will persist.  I’d say that it’s worth reading.  Charles Dickens, for example, wrote some long novels.  David Copperfield is one of them.  I’ve read all of Dickens’ novels.

Shantaram is described as a novel.  It’s also partly autobiographical.  I can’t tell where the true story leaves off and the fiction begins.  Parts of it are certainly fictional.

In the story, the protagonist loves people immediately, but eventually grows disappointed in some of them.  This behavior happens many times as the story progresses.  People are only human, after all.  It’s really a story of discovery, both about himself and about other people.

Scientific principles are mentioned several times in the book.  Some of it is wrong.  Philosophy of life is really the heart of the book.  Some of it may also be wrong, but I can’t tell.  Should we even expect to obtain accurate information from a work of fiction?

It is a good story, well worth reading.  One curious thing I noticed was that it did not employ flashbacks.  Instead, one of the characters will describe past events in conversation with another character.  It’s a gripping adventure story, well worth reading.

 

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is a retired professor from MIT, in the field of linguistics.  I had heard of him before, especially for his theory of language.  I also knew that he wrote political books.  I found out recently that he wrote dozens of them.  I decided to read one, to find out what it was all about.

I read Hegemony or Survival, written in 2003.  Then I moved on to Failed States, from 2006.  These seem to be his most recent books.  They missed some significant events in the US, notably the 2008 recession and the governments of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.  Still, the behavior of the US government seemed quite familiar.  Both books were quite similar.  I liked the way Chomsky always provides references and points out when other make a statement with no evidence.  The books make depressing reading when they reveal the extent of duplicity in the US government.  I was only revived by reading about the basic goodwill of the US population.

Both books describe the attitudes and actions of the US government.  Their actions are often covert, only coming to light long after they were carried out.  Still, they reveal unchanging attitudes.  The basic one is that the US can do no wrong.  They make exceptions for themselves in international agreements, or withdraw from them if they can’t force an exception.  They believe that achieving security means being in control of the world.  Countries that don’t surrender to US control are subject to regime change.  The US has the economic and military power to compel such a change.

They have a strategy that they follow with defiant countries.  It begins with harsh economic sanctions, denying the people food and medicine, with the expectation that they will blame their own government.  Next, the US supports an armed opposition group with money and weapons.  This is typically a right-wing group or the military.  The last step is for this group to overthrow the government, replacing it with a new government that favours the US.

At the same time, they launch a propaganda campaign.  You may hear the president, or somebody from the administration, telling you about a battle between good and evil, or a divine mission, or how they are bringing freedom and democracy to another country.  That’s the propaganda campaign.

Who is it in the US that’s doing all of this?  According to Chomsky, it seems not to matter if Republicans or Democrats are elected.  Either the politicians must share the same attitude, or the ones who do have that attitude must have great power over politicians.  Permanent employees of the administration may be at fault.  Some of them have a long history of promoting regime change in other countries.  They tell the politicians what to say and what to do.  At the same time, they revile politicians as ignorant opportunists.  They also revile they voters as plain ignorant.  Fortunately, voters are smarter than that.

 

Carbon Tax

You can read more about a carbon tax here.  Our Canadian carbon tax follows this description quite closely.  Even though it’s called a tax, it’s not a tax like any other.  Instead, it’s a means to change public behavior.

In Manitoba, the carbon tax follows federal government rules.  That’s because Manitoba failed to bring in one of it’s own.  Several other provinces have done the same thing.  I suppose that it allows them to blame the federal government for any hardship that the carbon tax imposes.

Our carbon tax is a tax on fuels that contain carbon.  The increased cost of gasoline and natural gas will affect most people.  There’s also a carbon tax on heating oil, but that fuel is little used in this province.

Coupled with the new tax, there is a rebate that people receive when they file their income tax return.

Of course, there have been complaints:  It’s a tax.  It’s a cash grab.  It doesn’t work.

As I mentioned, a carbon tax is not like other taxes.  The carbon tax on gasoline right now is about four cents a litre.  The provincial gasoline tax is about 30 cents a litre, with no rebate.  In other provinces, it’s about 45 cents a litre, also with no rebate.

There is a rebate on carbon taxes, dependent only on the number of people in the household.  The rebate is 100%, meaning that all of the money collected will be paid back to taxpayers.

People can do many things to reduce their carbon tax but still receive the rebate.  This is the purpose of such a tax.  They can move closer to work,  purchase more fuel-efficient cars, join a car pool, or use public transport.  In the case of home heating, they can upgrade insulation or find alternative heat sources.  If they choose to live just as they are, they can do that too, but they will pay more for fuel.

Eventually, our carbon tax will reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  Eventually, it will affect climate change.  That’s it’s ultimate purpose.

 

Political Decision

You’ve probably heard about Jody Wilson-Raybold and the SNC Lavalin affair.  It was in the news recently.  As Attorney General, she had to choose between a political decision and a legal one.  She was under considerable pressure to choose a political decision, but instead she chose a legal decision.  As a result, she was demoted from her cabinet post.  This is an example of something that happens frequently to government ministers.

There’s a better example.  It has to do with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, regarding the east coast fisheries.  I heard about this one on the radio, several years ago.  The minister had to choose between a scientific decision and a political one.  They had always chosen the political decision, disregarding the recommendations of their own scientists.  The department always decided to keep the fishery open.  This decision meant that the fishermen could keep fishing until all the fish were gone.

I don’t recall the fish species, but the scientists recommended closing the fishery to save the fish stocks.  Doing this would drive the companies out of business, putting the fishermen and fish plant workers out of jobs.  It is a difficult choice to make.

Political choices like these are made in response to regional or local conditions.  They are unpopular in the rest of the country.  That explains why these type of deliberations are generally held in secret and concealed from the public.  The other reason, of course, is that politicians from the region or local area want to win the next election; they are forced to recommend a political decision.