Refeudalization Part II

Another thing that troubles me about current events on the northern side of the US-Canadian border (once the longest undefended border in the world — thanks Homeland Security) is how obsessed governments and institutions have become with buildings.

Our local county government has been building a fully serviced industrial park with our tax dollars.  They are just doing it, no ‘voter’ got a say as to whether this kind of gambling was a good use of taxpayer dollars. (Oh, I am sure the argument is that they must invest in local facilities to make it attractive to potential employers — wonder what the risk is and who benefited?) The local paper was talking about the grandiose aquatic center that Kingston wants to build — which will require $10/person access fees and a 1.5% increase in taxes to pay for. And in the same breath the new stadium they built continues to loose money at the predicted rate of $500,000/year. And yet the hospital where my wife works is crumbling (patient rooms have been closed because of mould due to a leaking roof that no one wants to repair), their staff has been cut back so many times and the old timers are just being worked into the ground with excess overtime. The people who pay for this don’t get to have a say — there seems to be no recall mechanism in Canadian politics. The guys who are in stay in largely until they get bored and loose confidence of their fellow politicians. I don’t really understand how any of this can work.

There was a book I read many years ago that talked of the tendency of bureaucracies to expand their staff and build ever grander facilities for themselves while becoming ever more distant from real work — I think it was called ‘Parkinsons Law’. The example I believe was the British Admiralty (if my aging memory is accurate).

No one wants to look at metrics about real work because it’s painful and unpleasant. But new buildings — wow! The interesting thing about the construction of the new and grander hospital is that the taxpayer is funding the building, but the hospital must pass the hat in the community to fit it out. An interesting approach. If one were measuring patient outcomes, I wonder what the returns would be on just maintaining the existing facilities and providing adequate staff?

Unlike the US, where voters can in the end have a recall or impeach a sitting politician, Canadians don’t really have much to say about the government once it gets elected. So they can spend wildly and enrich their friends while increasing taxes and cutting services and everyone just takes it. Oh, one can petition the government just like in the US, but the government is perfectly capable of telling the petitioners to just bugger off. This has happened a lot over the deployment of wind farms in bird areas. I guess the rule of follow the money is still valid — how much did the birds contribute to the last campaign? And relative to this, Canada has a Freedom of Information act — but the government is under no obligation to respond to requests. As one bureaucrat told the Globe&Mail, ‘we have things the way we like it, and you are not going to mess it up by poking into OUR business’ — I think this is more or less the essence of what was reported, but it has been a while since this particular discussion floated across my awareness.

I guess the miracle is that anything works at all. The company I worked for years ago shipped the lot of us from Kentucky to Ontario back in 1984. The phrase ‘your job is now in Canada’ is an interesting one to hear in the middle of a nasty divorce. But watching the healthcare debate in the US has been interesting and reflective of how much better life is without the concern for how to provide dependent coverage. Or running a small business without the mind-numbing complexity of US regulations. Guess the real secret is that in a feudal society, if one is not a lord then the next best way is to be ignored and just stay out of the way of the lords as they rampage across the country. I wonder if at the end of all this there will be a new ‘Magna Carta’?

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Marching Morons — Part II

I was horrified today to receive a mailer from Fine Woodworking with the banner ad that some guy in Baltimore was awarded 1.5 million dollars in a lawsuit against Ryobi because the saw did not have a flesh sensor and injured him. I did not bother to dig into it further, not because I think it is false but because it is all too likely to be true. It seems that almost daily I am barraged with ads from one group or another saying that whatever the problem, “its not my fault and someone owes me money as a result”. This is yet another instance and I can see the consequences already if it does not get thrown out by some wiser court.

I use a table saw and other potentially dangerous tools almost daily. Their cutting edges are sharp and are turned by powerful motors. This allows them to make quick work of maple or oak planks or anything else I wanted to push against the cutting edge. There is a (very expensive) saw on the market that has some sort of sensor and an explosive cartridge that would stop the blade if instead I decided to push my finger into the blade. I chose not to spend the money on this obvious idiot-proofing but rather to invest in more tools. There are things called push blocks intended to provide more easily sacrificed ‘fingers’ when working close to the blade — I use them regularly.

I can see it now, ‘flesh-stop’ mandatory on all power tools, wood chisels with the warning ‘point sharp edge away from hand’, paint brushes with ‘hold this end and insert other end in paint’.

The tragedy is that public resources were used to put this whole example of individual stupidity on trial and a vendor is being made to compensate someone who should have known better. If I wreck myself doing something ill-advised with my equipment it is my fault — not someone else’s. I know the owners manual probably had extensive discussions of power tool safety — but clearly the owner had no obligation to read. It is like the snowmobilers who got killed holding a rally in a declared avalanche area last week — yes I am sure that the warnings could have been spray-painted on every snowflake, but if they choose to ignore the warnings it is their fault, not someone else. Seems we have forgotten the self-pruning nature of the tree of life. People who do not exercise caution in dangerous situations should not be rewarded for their behavior. To do otherwise is to make us all weaker and less likely to survive.

Meat Inspection in Canada, reason for Vegetarianism

Two articles in the Globe today highlighted a growing problem with eating meat in Canada — the food inspection process is collapsing and no one [who can affect it]  cares. Apparently, in the last two weeks there has been another Lysteria outbreak in luncheon meats prepared by Siena (I may not be exactly accurate on this and don’t care). And there was a discussion of the inquiry into the big Maple Leaf foods problem as well. Seems that while meat products for export are looked at every day, products for domestic consumption are only inspected weekly. And one might ask that with this frequency is anything looked at beyond the paperwork?

This is coupled with the efforts by the government on both sides of the border to drive the small slaughterhouses out of business in favor of the huge packing plants. Interestingly, the small outfits do not have a history of food safety issues — but the big ones do. May have something to do with their size or maybe their predilection to buy meat (we think it is meat) from anywhere world-wide to cut their costs in producing these big blocks of ground ‘beef’ that our industrialized food services buy to pump out those burgers we consume in such huge quantities.

And then there is the argument that these industrial companies really have the consumer’s interests at heart in trying to keep costs down to produce a uniform product in huge quantities. But then if the cost of the occasional lawsuit for food poisoning is less than the cost of proper inspection, profits are better so who cares?

It does make me wonder if it is really safe to eat our food anymore? In the days when we ate what was made within a radius around us, when the dairy and meat came from people we could know if we wanted to, food safety had some obvious built-in controls. But when the food comes from huge corporations that consider their ultimate customers abstractions (consumers) and not people they see in the market, one has to wonder what their interests are?

I for one am starting to wonder after getting sick from a commercial (made fresh) sandwich — is anything made with industrial meat safe anymore? Seeing the regular stream of news reports about casual inspections, sweetheart deals between business and government and a slow and cavalier response to problems — makes me think that vegetarianism is the only recourse.

Thoughts on Energy

A couple of articles caught my eye today about energy. Seems the appetite for oil in China shot up 28% this year — and the Saudis are looking to sell more there than to North America. And another that suggested the peak production point for Kuwait is probably much sooner than forecast — probably 2014. And there is that wasteful catastrophy called the oil sands…sigh.

Seems to me we have wasted a lot of years in energy development and are now playing catchup. I hope for our sake that the race to produce energy catches up with the race to consume it. The evolution of our societies is driven by using more and more energy (just watch TV sometimes…)  so to turn away from this path is societal suicide.

What I find interesting about all this is that right now all of our energy comes from the sun — directly or indirectly. The food we eat grows through chemical processes driven by sunlight. The plants of former times got buried and eventually became coal. I suspect that oil is really old organic ocean sediments cooked by subduction. So like our metabolism, we burn these organic remains to produce heat which we turn into electricity. The carbon goes back into the pool to be turned by sunlight back into organic matter — and while hanging around waiting it helps warm our planet, together with many other factors.

Hydroelectric power comes from falling water — water that was lifted by solar evaporation and deposited elsewhere by the wind. And wind is driven by differences in air pressure caused by solar heating of the planet.

And let us not forget nuclear energy — where we extract heat from the forced decay of unstable heavy metals. These heavy metals ultimately are the ashes of old supernova explosions a very long time ago, the remains of billions of years of nuclear fusion.

In the end there is only the sun — and various levels of inefficiency in extracting its energy gifts. I wonder how long it will take before we can make this most fundamental process work directly? It has been just around the corner since I was an undergrad in the 60’s. But it seems the immediate rewards of burning our planet trump the basic research needed. It would be nice if the people controlling the money flow really believed.

The Marching Morons

I was appalled, but not surprised, to read in the New York Times that a number of states have added global warming to the mythologies that they want to be taught in schools as a ‘balanced’ approach to ‘critical thinking’. As some critics have pointed out this is another instance of the creeping attempt to dismantle the separation of church and state that is a part of the American system. Goes right up there with the effort of one state, I think it was Tennessee, to legally define PI as 3.000 — great, hope your buildings stay up.

I have been watching a defense of the subjugation of women among some of my Facebook friends and see something similar — because of the pronouns used in the english language translation of the Old Testament, there is a hierarchy of control established with women at the bottom. Let us not forget how many times this text has been translated both in language and culture from the original to say nothing of politics — read the history of Rome and the councils of Nicea. Anyone play telephone?

I guess at the root of the whole mess is a desire to put evidence-based science on a par with religious beliefs. Or as Mark Twain once remarked: ‘X knows all that can be known and I know the rest’. Personally, given the choice between evidence-based science suggesting something I did not like and a belief that it just didn’t apply to me, I would take the latter if there were no fatal consequences for my faith being wrong. Especially if it were profitable for me to continue down a particular path — i.e. I had an incentive for persisting in the face of evidence to the contrary.

But that is the rub, isn’t it? This is an easy thing to debate where the scope is small and the number of variables can be counted on one hand. But when the scope becomes huge the debate becomes much more difficult and there is plenty of room for faith to fill in the missing or inconvenient variables — regardless of which way it tilts.

The cynic would say ‘follow the money’ — there is certainly enough suggestions that various political projects are motivated by private profit (and colored by it). I am thinking of the wind turbines on the next island — producing intermittent power at several times the cost of a nuclear plant; or the ‘open market’ for electricity that various places are trying to implement (an idea fostered by Enron); or the idea that by forcing more people to do business with insurance companies or outsourcing agencies that costs can go down while preserving service levels; or that exporting jobs and increasing the number of unemployed is somehow good for the economy. The list seems almost endless.

The problem with most of this is that the variables and their relationships are pretty obscure at best [climate change is the messiest] so since evidence-based science only offers peepholes into what, if anything, is going on — the proponents fall back on faith to fill in the blanks and paper over the inconsistencies.

Problem with exposing kids to conflicting ideas as dicta is that they will be memorizing this without the critical thinking skills to make their own decisions about which is ‘truth’ and which is ‘faith’. And since faith is generally free of evidence (except perhaps for sainthood qualifiers and other miracles) there are no guideposts to help them choose between standing on firm ground or trying to walk on water (or air). So in the end the quality of their decisions will go down. Today we probably will not notice it, but over time I suspect things will degrade. It is like my sons’ science textbooks — each province has its own versions of the basic sciences and the order in which concepts are presented are determined by (secret) committee and no longer follow the development progressions of the texts I was taught from. He had an awful time because it became just rote memorization and applying concepts was very difficult. This may have been the intent as it seems while some parts of the world are getting smarter, we are making our children dumber.

So in the end, it might be helpful to remember that we got here as a society by applying the evidence. And followed our faith to fill in the rest and keep us going to find more evidence. That we do not understand some of what we see and what we do see seems inconsistent and paradoxical should not be so distressing. But as long as we insist on simple black and white explanations for very complex problems we will be disappointed. So when a problem is too big we should hold off on being too enthusiastic for simple solutions — including denying the problem. But strive to find other ways forward that leaves room for us to be wrong and correct it. But this is hard, which is why the morons among us yearn so strongly for simple solutions that don’t make them too uncomfortable. I hope they are a minority.