Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Dear reader,

On Monday January 9, 2017 I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which has already metastasized to my liver. The primary tumour has encircled a major artery, so cannot be removed surgically, though something can probably be done to reduce its size.

The cancer was detected on a CT scan. A previous CT scan done last May showed nothing.

I may post something here from time to time, but my focus from here forward will not allow me to spend much time on this blog.

Alan Chattaway

Thursday, June 23, 2016

How a piece of music evolved

During my youth the song Rocking Red Wing (1960) was a big hit. Much later I encountered the original, titled Happy Farmer (1830), when my children learned it in their Suzuki violin classes. Finally I encountered Red Wing (1911) in a collection of old sheet music.

I was pleased to see my family name among the credits: the 1911 lyrics are by Thurland Chattaway. This is the only connection I'm aware of (a tenuous one, to be sure) between my clan and the composer Robert Schumann.

One distressing fact of life is that Sammy Masters didn't acknowledge that he got the tune from Kerry Mills, and Kerry Mills didn't acknowledge that he got it from Robert Schumann. It makes me wonder if Robert Schumann got it from someone before him!

The Happy Farmer
by Robert Schumann

Red Wing
Lyrics by Thurland Chattaway
Music adapted by Kerry Mills from Schumann's "Happy Farmer"

Rocking Red Wing
Lyrics adapted by Sammy Masters from "Red Wing" by Thurland Chattaway
Music adapted from Kerry Mills' adaptation of Schumann's "Happy Farmer"

Thursday, February 25, 2016

How to recognize a satirical, hoax, or fake news website

A friend asked me if I could provide a list of all the satirical, hoax, and fake news websites on the Internet. There are thousands of such sites on the Internet, with more added every day, and it can be embarrassing to realize that the link you posted on Facebook goes to one of them. Since there are so many, it was easier to write about how to recognize that what looks like a news website is actually a satirical, hoax, or fake site.

I realized that others might find these tips useful, so I've posted them here. Here are eight things you can do to protect yourself from being fooled. You don't have to do all of these things every time; with a little practice you'll get a sense of which one to apply.

1. Understand why such sites exist

Satirical sites such as the Onion (http://www.theonion.com) are intended to be funny. Hoax sites delight in humiliating people who hold particular views. Fake sites look like well-known websites such as the BBC or CNN, but contain fake news. All of them earn money from advertisers, who pay a fee for every visitor lured to the site.

2. Examine your true inner motives

Hoax and fake sites fool us because deep down we want them to be true. We love positive stories about breakthroughs in medicine or technology, and we love negative stories that reinforce our existing opinions. So we uncritically believe stories like "New car runs on air" or "Leader secretly a terrorist."

3. Check the website's URL (address)

Every web page has a unique address called a URL, formatted like this example:
The URL appears at the top of the window to identify the site. One way fake websites fool you is by using a URL subtly different from the URL of the trusted site they are pretending to be, hoping you won't notice the difference. For example:
If you suspect a website is a fake but you don't know the URL of the real website, use Google to find the real site. You can then compare both the URLs and the contents of the two sites.

4. Go directly instead of clicking links

If a link claims to go to a particular website, don't click the link but go directly to that site. If you don't know the URL of the site, Google it. That way you can be sure of going to the real site.

5. Check the story on some sites that track hoaxes

The top 5 sites that track hoaxes are:
One of these sites should have information if a hoax has been around for a while. Brand new hoaxes won't be listed unless someone reports them.

6. Check the story on other news sites

If a story is really big news, usually lots of news sites will carry it. Google News (http://news.google.com) lets you search the world's online news sources; enter a few keywords found in the story, and Google will return stories that contain those words. If the big news story that got you excited doesn't exist anywhere else, the story may be a hoax.

7. Look for a disclaimer admitting that the site is a satirical or hoax site

To cover themselves legally, many satirical and hoax sites publish a disclaimer on their website, though it's often hard to find, and sometimes strangely worded. Look for links that say "Disclaimer," "About" or "About Us," etc. These are often near the top or bottom of the site's home page. One site has a rambling statement that trails off into fantasy, placed at the very end of the web page after all the user comments. Be creative and learn to hunt for such statements.

8. Read other headlines on the website

If you're still not sure the website's a hoax, read its other headlines. If one or more of them is plainly ridiculous, chances are the entire site is.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Canadian election statistics

Canada has just (Oct 2015) held a federal election that saw Party A, which became the Government at the 2011 election, slip to Opposition status, while Party B has now become the Government.

It's a huge change, yet statistically it has tiny roots:

In 2011 the Government received 39.6% of votes.
In 2015 the Government received 39.5% of votes.

In 2011 the Opposition received 30.6% of votes.
In 2015 the Opposition received 31.9% of votes.

A little math shows that if just 3.8% of the voters had switched their allegiance from Party B to Party A, that would have tipped the balance. So that tiny percentage controlled the outcome of the election.

That's significant because:
In 2011, 61.1% of eligible voters voted.
In 2015, 68.5% of eligible voters voted.

The increase in participation was 7.4%, more than enough to sway the election. A large part of that increase is thought to represent first-time voters.

The next federal election will be held in 2019 (or earlier, though that's unlikely). Four years is a long time in politics, and the close numbers suggest that - provided there's a level playing field for all the parties - anything may happen then.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A flag is just a piece of cloth

There are at least two sides to every story, but the “progressive” side now dominates our media, educational institutions and levers of power. They demonize other views, and where possible suppress them altogether.

The most recent issue is the niqab. Other than Rex Murphy, whose announced retirement protects him from being fired, no journalist at a major media outlet has dared to present a viewpoint opposing those who are attacking the government’s position that faces must be uncovered at citizenship ceremonies.

As a good friend wrote to me this week, “If the niqab is just a piece of clothing, then so is the Ku Klux Klan’s hood, and a flag is just a piece of cloth. And a citizenship is just a piece of paper.”

A niqab is a political statement, a challenge to Canada and Canadian values. We cover our faces only when our health or safety are at risk, then expose them again to show who we are and identify with our society. A niqab may or may not be, as many claim, a sign of subjugation and violence against women, but it is clearly a refusal to integrate into our society – something the left does not want us to even discuss.

Zunera Ishaq, the woman in the niqab, works for the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). Author and commentator Tarek Fatah reports that the Muslim Brotherhood described ICNA as teaching Muslims "that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands...so that...God's religion is made victorious over all other religions." (https://goo.gl/pfRbtX).

By changing Canadian law to accommodate Ishaq’s requirements even before she was a citizen, our Supreme Court has unwittingly cooperated with those goals. It is neither racist nor bigoted to recognize this as a small step along a road that could lead to the demise of our free society. And when we look back, it’s possible we may recognize the niqab as the first tiny flag of conquest.

(With acknowledgements to my good friend RT.)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Life in socks

Some count their lives in years,
Some in tears,
Some in conquests, some in fears.
I count in socks.

Eight pairs; one worn today,
Seven stay - 
Drawer or hamper - hid away;
Eight pairs, no more.

Whate'er my days befall,
Great or small,
Life is rhythm'd by the call:
"Wash socks today!"

(c) Alan Chattaway 2014

Inspired by the cost of good,
medically required support socks.
Eight pairs cost around $850.

Friday, January 31, 2014

"E. & O. E."

More than a year ago, I noticed dirt or gravel being shaped into long piles at the low end of a sloping triangle of land cut off between Hwy 1, Hwy 15 and Barnston Drive. Until then the only building in that triangle was the local fire hall, so I wondered what they were doing. Being enclosed by two major highways and a major road, low down the hill, and with most of the local ground sloping, it hardly looked like an area where anyone would want to live.

So when they laid concrete slab foundations on top of the piles of dirt, then proceeded to frame long buildings with roofs that slope only one way (i.e. they have no peak), I thought they might be building warehouses or a motel.

Then a sign went up advertising it as a "luxury townhome" development! I could hardly believe it, especially built on those mounds of dirt. But then, around the time that the structures were fully enclosed, they began building retaining walls around the mounds and backfilled between the mounds and the retaining walls, stabilizing the mounds and giving each home a couple of metres of level ground outside their door.

Last week their advertising brochure arrived in our mailbox. "The BEST Townhome in Fraser Heights" proclaimed the cover, which immediately got my attention because, firstly, I know of no other townhomes in Fraser Heights, and secondly, this new development isn't even in Fraser Heights! The websites of both the Fraser Heights Community Association and the Port Kells Community Association define Hwy 15 as the boundary between Fraser Heights and Port Kells, and the new development is on the Port Kells side of Hwy 15.

Port Kells is a mixed residential/farming/industrial area with many older buildings (including heritage buildings 100 years old) while Fraser Heights is an upscale residential area about 25 years old, and still being developed. So the promoters seem to be stretching to make the location of their townhomes seem more attractive.

As I continued to read the brochure I realized it has more than its share of grammatical and spelling errors. The new development is "a communters dream" with "its setting a top of Fraser Heights" and "convenietly" close to "shopping centre's" and the "Surreycampus" of SFU. The list of local amenities includes at least three shops that closed around a year ago. There is only one exterior picture of a townhome in the entire brochure and it does not show the sloping nature of the land, but the fine print on the back cover explains that "renderings are an artist's conception and are intended as a general reference only" and adds "E. & O. E." to cover everything else.

Maybe the idea of living close to Fraser Heights for a townhome price has an appeal that will overcome the reservations I would expect people to develop when they actually see the location. But me? I would be constantly checking those retaining walls for the first sign of a crack.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Technology prices fall - some consequences

A family member just bought a new computer. It's  30 years since he and I bought new computers together. Compared to the computers we bought back then, his new computer has:
  • 250 times the memory
  • 4,000 times the speed
  • 17 million times the storage
for half the price - which is actually one fifth of the price after taking inflation into account!

I thought about that when someone sent me a video about new advances in telemedicine, using inexpensive add-ons that allow smart phones to monitor EKG, display ultrasound images of the heart, monitor blood glucose in real time, etc. (http://tinyurl.com/ac9zpv2)

Yes, this will soon revolutionize medicine and drive a lot of medical technology labs (and their technologists) out of business. But this has only been made possible by the huge drop in the cost of computing power.

And, in a sense, it's a return to an earlier era when all the medical technology that existed at the time could be carried in the doctor's bag: thermometer, stethoscope, etc. The technology is much more capable now, but the idea that the doctor can wield it him- or herself without needing the help of numerous technicians is a step back toward a closer doctor-patient relationship; while the possibility that the patient can monitor his or her own symptoms and take appropriate action has to be another step in the right direction.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Riding the range at the Ponderosa

We've recently been watching reruns of the old Bonanza TV series from the 1960s. The story concerns the Cartwright family, who supposedly lived in the 1860s on a huge ranch called the Ponderosa near Virginia City, Nevada. Many episodes refer to the awesome size of the Ponderosa, and finally I couldn't resist working out exactly how big the ranch really "was".  It helps that this map appears in the title sequence of every episode, as well as on the wall behind Ben Cartwright's desk (click the map to see it in a separate window):

By comparing that map to the real one below taken from Google Maps, I had a scale by which to estimate the size of the Ponderosa. First I had to rotate the real map to match the odd angle of the one above. I also had to work around a few liberties the old map had taken with the positions of certain landmarks, such as Washoe Lake:

Google's scale tells me that Lake Tahoe is about 20 miles long. Using that as a ruler, I estimate the area of the Ponderosa as 150 square miles, which is 20% larger than the entire city of Surrey, BC where I live.

So yes, the Ponderosa was really big, but not unimaginably so. There was also plenty of room for the Ponderosa to contain mountains, forests, deserts, green valleys and small lakes the show portrays. The island of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, which is only about half the size of the Ponderosa, has all of those, including every kind of environment from tropical rain forest at the west end of the island to tumbleweed desert at the east end, as well as two major factories and at least three towns.

But knowing the true size of the Ponderosa does cast some doubt on the speed at which people could apparently travel between Virginia City and the Ponderosa on horseback!

Friday, November 30, 2012

A simple, effective approach to electoral reform

After recent federal byelections in Canada there is fresh talk about electoral reform to prevent vote-splitting and strategic voting.

Vote-splitting happens when the majority of voters are forced to choose one of several similar candidates, resulting in none of those candidates getting enough votes to be elected even though their policies are the most popular.

Strategic voting happens when voters, trying avoid vote-splitting, vote for the strongest acceptable candidate instead of the candidate they prefer.

Both vote-splitting and strategic voting arise from our 'first past the post' electoral system which imposes the illogical restriction that if there is one position to be filled, voters can vote for only one candidate. Clearly, this system can only be democratic when there are just two candidates. When there are several candidates most voters might find more than one candidate acceptable, but the system makes no provision for that.

Other jurisdictions address this issue using various complex schemes, such as proportional representation, transferable votes, ranking candidates, and runoff elections. A much simpler solution is what's sometimes called consensus voting (also known as approval voting), where everything is exactly the same as our present system except that voters can make as many Xs on their ballot as they wish. Ideally, they vote for all the candidates they find acceptable.

For example, one voter might vote for the Conservative, Liberal, and Family Values parties while their neighbour might vote for the Democratic, Green, and Socialist parties. The candidate with the most votes would still win, but there would be no more vote-splitting or strategic voting, and the winner would almost always have the support of more than 50% of the voters.

Under this system, smaller parties would get several times more votes than they do now, and therefore would wield influence even without getting elected. Imagine that you have just been elected because 64% of the voters voted for you. If you see that 51% of the voters voted for the Family Values party and 55% voted for the Green Party, you will certainly take those views into account when crafting your positions on families and the environment.

Consensus voting is more democratic because it brings more of the voters' opinions to bear on the outcome of the election. And it has one major advantage over complex schemes: everybody will understand it. That's an important consideration in a country where one province has rejected (twice) a proportional representation system that few voters felt they fully understood.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

How many squares?

I keep seeing this puzzle on Facebook, so I'm posting my systematic solution here.

There's a pattern of 16 basic squares in a regular 4  x  4 grid, plus two more superimposed on that grid to create 8 small squares.

First consider the basic squares.  There are 4 x 4 = 16 of them.

Now group them into 2 x 2 squares. There are 3 of those across:

and there are obviously 3 of them down also, so there are 3 x 3 = 9 of them.

If you do the same using 3 x 3 squares, there are 2 across and 2 down, so there are 2 x 2 = 4 of them.

And of course if you group them into a 4 x 4 square, there's just 1 of those.

Now if you do the same with the two superimposed squares, there are 8 small squares and 2 large squares:

So the total number of squares is:

16 + 9 + 4 + 1 + 8 + 2 = 40

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Your life in 5-year snapshots

Here's something new: describe your life on a single page by writing single-sentence snapshots of your life at 5-year intervals. Here's my one-page history:

5 years ago: Teaching math, science and information technology at an independent school in British Columbia.

10 years ago: Independent consultant doing functional specification documents for industrial software development projects in Georgia (US).

15 years ago: Staff consultant at software company in Seattle, applying their products to customers' needs and designing software to fill any gaps.

20 years ago: Selecting computers, designing networks and implementing process management software at large new pulp mills in northern Alberta.

25 years ago: Teaching computers, electronics and logic to engineering technologists at a new division of a college in Surrey, British Columbia.

30 years ago: Developing software to automate the startup of a process plant in British Columbia.

35 years ago: Overseas resident control systems engineer for a project to design and build a large pulp and paper mill in Poland.

40 years ago: Owner/operator of an business doing recording, editing, and duplication of radio programs and educational material in Vancouver, BC.

45 years ago: University student and anti-apartheid activist in Durban, South Africa.

50 years ago: At boarding school in Lusaka, Zambia completing A-level university entrance requirements in math and science.

55 years ago: Completing elementary school and editing the class annual.

60 years ago: Leaving the UK and flying to my new home in Northern Rhodesia.

65 years ago: Learning to hate the daily spoonful of cod liver oil all British kids got from the National Health System!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Servant Leadership

I just found in my archive the talk I gave on Wednesday 26 October 2005 at Heritage Christian School's Grade 12 Leadership Retreat. I thought others might like to read it. The quotations from the Bible are from the New Living Translation.
_ _ _ _ _

There are 13 people here tonight - the same number as Jesus and his disciples. This must be how it felt for them to be together.

I have friends in Israel, so I keep track of Jewish holidays. Today is Simchat Torah, when the Jews celebrate the glory of the Law. Not the giving of it - that's celebrated at Pentecost - but its glory. Yet in the New Testament, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6 "[God's] new covenant...is not one of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old way of the Law ends in death; in the new way, the Holy Spirit gives life." Paul didn't say the law was bad - on the contrary, he says several times in Romans that the law is good - but it doesn't bring life. Only the Holy Spirit does that.

Here are some thoughts about Servant Leadership:

1.  The need for leadership is a consequence of sin.

Who led the first humans? God did. When did God first put one human in authority over another? After the Fall. When did Israel first get a king, and why? See 1 Samuel 8:4.

2.  Leadership is hard work!

In today's Leadership exercises, one group put "lazy" in their list of characteristics a leader should not have. That's right!  Leaders work hard, long hours, and their work is emotionally draining. And it's absolutely essential! A recent book studied the failures of many large American corporations and concluded that it's not particular styles of management that cause failure, but simply the failure of the CEO to execute the plan. So basic, and so essential.

3.  Leadership, like electricity, comes in positive and negative kinds

I looked up the verb "to lead" in the New Testament and - surprise - found almost every reference was to someone leading others astray, or leading them into temptation.

Almost the only positive use of this word was in Revelation 7:17, which is beautiful: "For the Lamb who stands in front of the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe away all their tears."

Bad leaders are everywhere. They may only influence a handful of people, but if they can corrupt those, evil spreads. Note the second part of Romans 1:32: "Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too."

I had an experience during my teen years when a bad leader tried to encourage me to be like him. I sensed something was wrong and found an excuse to get away from him. It was only years later that I discovered what he really had in mind, and what a narrow escape I'd had.

A godly Christian servant leader will be a Shepherd, leading people to life, and wiping away their tears.

3. Leadership can be learned

Think about physics; we all do it instinctively - even a dog can catch a thrown ball in its mouth! - but we can't explain how we do it, and as a result we often get it wrong. This is why we study physics, to master the subject!  It's the same with justice, truth, mercy and all the other virtues; scripture tells us to study these. Yes, leadership can be learned!

4.  Leadership must be done with integrity!

We recently watched the movie Hotel Rwanda. It has been said by a church leader in Africa that Africa has no shortage of gifted leaders - but very few good ones.

The leader, especially the servant-leader, must have the good of the followers at heart - not his or her own profit or image.

A counselor working in an anonymous cubicle at the Billy Graham headquarters was seen to have posted this sign on his wall: "There is no limit to the good you can do, if you don't care who gets the credit." This is worth thinking about and adopting for ourselves.

As a leader with integrity, you will both gain and lose friends. C.S. Lewis wrote a whole essay called "The Inner Ring" about how the in-group demands that you compromise your integrity to join their circle. Instead, you should act with integrity and you will find yourself part of another circle, one of virtue.

Sometimes when you act with integrity, you will face consequences. I once saw a cartoon that showed a fired executive explaining to his wife: "I told the truth, and they set me free!"

Not everyone is a so-called "natural-born leader" who instinctively draws people to follow him or her.  But everyone gets called upon by circumstances to exercise leadership, and when that call comes your way, you MUST lead.

5. Leadership within this group

  • Among you I have seen many words of encouragement given. That's a good form of leadership.
  • I've seen you working together for the common good, and helping one another spontaneously. That's servanthood.
  • I've seen you honour one another with the precious gift of paying attention. That's love.

Don't ever let anyone persuade you you're missing out by not doing what others do. I was 20 when I became a Christian, so I remember how empty my former life was. I actually became a Christian at a camp like this one, because I could see the love these people had for one another, just as I see it here. The way I expressed it to myself was, "I've never seen people having such a good time, sober." This is not so unbiblical as it sounds. The very first Christian sermon, delivered by Peter right after the Holy Spirit came upon the church at Pentecost and recorded in Acts 2:15-36, begins: "No, we're not drunk -- it's too early for that, the bars aren't open yet!" People saw the joy and excitement of the Christians and attributed it to drunkenness; we know better.

I want to commend you for your love for one another. Now take that love and extend it in service to others. They are like sheep without a shepherd, and that's where all of you become servant leaders.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Moore's Law and the ever-shrinking computer

A friend sent me this 1956 photo with the heading "Guess What This Is?"  I recognized it immediately as some kind of data storage for an early computer.

It's the hard drive for IBM's model 305 RAMAC computer.  It weighed around 1 tonne and stored 5 megabytes of data (equivalent to one JPEG photo from a modern camera).

About 25 years after that photo was taken, I was writing software in an early attempt to automate the complex task of starting up a paper machine. The chosen computer had a 24-bit processor and held 48 megabytes of data on huge interchangeable disk packs. The computer room looked like a kitchen: the computer was the size of a refrigerator, the disk drive the size of a dishwasher, and each disk pack resembled a very large cake cover. The price of the whole system would have bought two 3-bedroom townhouses.

The computer had only one programming language, a crippled version of FORTRAN that limited each  compiled program to 1500 bytes and did not allow subroutines. We got around that by using hundreds of programs that called each other as they terminated.

The budget was limited, so we had to perform tests to determine process conditions for which no sensor had been purchased. The tests took a long time, so in the end our automated approach was no faster that an experienced operator. Still, we managed to publish a paper about our experiences!

Around that time the movie "War Games" was released, about a teenager who accidentally comes close to starting World War III while hacking into what he thinks is a new computer game, but is actually NORAD's war strategy simulator. I show this exciting movie to my students to demonstrate the progress we've made in the past 30 years. 

The War Games sets are packed with early 1980s computer systems.  In one scene, the actors walk through NORAD's computer centre, a cavernous room filled with huge tape drives and computers.  I make my students count the items and estimate their approximate volume.  Then I have them apply Moore's Law to answer the multiple-choice question: "Today, all that computing capability would fit inside a...".  Six years ago, the correct choice of answer was "backpack."  Last year it was "smart phone"  By next year it will be "wristwatch."

Postscript, 2015-01-26: We recently found the "backup logbook" we kept for our home computer, starting in early 1994. We paid $342 for a tape drive and $102 for three tapes, and made backups faithfully once a week. After several years we switched to CD-RWs. Today we back up over our home network to a mirrored server. I'd like to think that our future systems won't have any moving parts, but we've seen a couple of solid-state drives fail badly, so we'll always need backups!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Aeroplane (1962)

For all those who think engineers can't write poetry!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The Aeroplane
(c) 1962 Alan T. Chattaway

O Aeroplane!  Thou gleaming silver bird,
Shimmering in thy glory, hear my word,
For I too long have tarried in this land,
And now my eye grows feeble, and my hand
Trembles to write these words, my weary plea:
O Aeroplane!  Please take me to the sea!

When I first brought my soul to Rhodes' fair land
My fate lay in the noble pilot's hand.
Through sky and cloud he safely brought me in
While I, through youth's sweet nature, trusted him.
He set me down, and I stepped out anew
Into the land where all my dreams came true.

Thus seemed it to me then - but now, alack!
The burden of my years lies on my back.
I long to visit lands beyond my own,
Forget my labours - leave my cares at home,
And, thus released from worry, to ensure
I once again will hear the ocean's roar.

My wish it is, therefore, that I should fly
Down to the place where earth and sea meet sky.
The Aeroplane - that silver eagle there -
Must list to me, must hear my weary prayer,
My longing cry, the lonely person's plea:
O Aeroplane!  Please take me to the sea!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


In 1962, halfway through my first year as a boarder at Gilbert Rennie School* in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia, I entered a writing contest open to all high school seniors in the Federation**.  The topic was "Why I would like to go on a Central African Airways all-inclusive holiday to the sea," and if you won, you would get that trip.

The contest was open to both prose and poetry, so I decided to write a poem as a bit of a lark - though I can see that I gave it my best shot, and harboured deeper feelings than some might expect of a 16-year-old.

A couple of months later I received good news and bad news.  The good news was that I had won!  The bad news was that the judges were unable to choose between my poem and a prose entry by a girl, so they had split the first prize between us.  Rather than one of us receiving the promised trip to the sea, each of us could fly anywhere within our own landlocked Federation (a judgment worthy of Solomon!).

I used the opportunity to visit my friend Jeremy Thorne at his home in Malawi.  Since I had to change planes in Salisbury***, and because I planned to study engineering, CAA took me on a personal tour of their maintenance department in Salisbury between my flights.

Verse 2 recalls my arrival in Northern Rhodesia at age 6.  I came from England, where luxuries like candy were still rationed 7 years after World War II.  When I arrived at Ndola airport, I saw some candies in the tearoom and asked my dad "are they on coupons?" (knowing full well that they were not - children manipulate their parents!).  My dad bought me the entire jar! 

[Update 2010-08-07: I left Africa in 1968 without a written copy of this poem, and re-wrote it from memory a few years later. Today I found the original [with typos] in our 1962 school magazine, posted by Chris Waller at http://homepage.mac.com/wallerc/.Public/GRS1962mag.pdf. My memorized version was accurate except for two words, which I have now corrected above, and I have also corrected these notes.]

     * now Kabulonga School for Boys
   ** The Federation consisted of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.  In 1964 the Federation was dissolved and the countries were renamed Zambia, Rhodesia and Malawi.  Rhodesia was later renamed Zimbabwe.
 *** now Harare, Zimbabwe

Friday, March 12, 2010

What's a PDA?

Each month after reading the latest issue of Consumer Reports, I shelve it and discard the oldest copy on the shelf. Today, before recycling the June 2002 issue I glanced at its review of PDAs.

PDAs? Does anyone still remember that acronym?

A Personal Digital Assistant is like a smartphone, without the phone. I still use the Palm IIIxe I bought in 2000 as my calendar, diary, notepad, e-book reader, etc. It even has a copy of the entire Bible, and plenty of room for other data in its 8MB memory.  What shocks me today is that my Palm cost as much then as a good netbook costs now.

Palm introduced the first successful PDA in 1996. Apple had failed in 1993 with a PDA called the Newton; its inability to reliably recognize handwriting was the butt of many late-night TV jokes. (I've also read that the Newton doesn't recognize dates past 2009; what were they thinking?)

By 2002 there were dozens of PDAs. Palm was dominant, but Microsoft was trying to take over with "Windows Mobile." (8 years later, they're still trying with "Windows Phone 7".)

The biggest surprise is the high prices we were willing to pay in 2002:
  • Cheapest PDA $150
  • Average non-Windows PDA $320
  • Average Windows Pocket PC $560
  • The one smartphone in the group cost an extra $230
The falling cost of electronics is part of what economists call the "Wal-Mart effect" that has kept overall inflation low for a decade, while the price of essentials like homes, food, and energy rises faster than the inflation rate. Great for the wealthy, but tough on people who are just getting by.

And where are PDAs today? They morphed into smartphones, and are now handed out free with 3-year phone contracts!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Keep TV stations' hands out of our pockets

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is campaigning to force Canadian cable TV companies to pay TV stations for the privilege of carrying their signals. This seems entirely backward to me!

Cable TV started around 1950 and was then called Community Antenna TV (CATV). At that time all TV reception was through antennas. People who lived far from the transmitter needed a big antenna to get an acceptable picture. Because these antennas were very expensive, whole neighbourhoods agreed to share the cost and the signal, and CATV was born.

So cable TV subscribers pay the full cost of bringing TV signals into their home. Without cable TV, the TV stations would have a much smaller audience; in fact, it would make more sense for the TV stations to pay the cable companies for this service, then hit up their advertisers for more money for "delivering more eyeballs" (as they say in the trade).

All communications in Canada are regulated by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Under CRTC rules, Canadian cable companies must carry local stations, and all cable customers must pay about $200 per year for those stations (this is called "basic cable"). Only then can customers add "specialty" channels like movies, sports, ethnic etc.

So customers are already forced to pay to receive stations they
can get for free by sticking a bent coathanger into their TV's antenna socket. Now, in addition, the cable companies will be forced to pay a new tax to subsidize local TV stations. The cable companies, quite understandably, intend to pass this tax on to their customers - and the CBC is even campaigning against that.

International comparisons show that Canadians pay more, for worse service, in all the fields the CRTC regulates - home phones, cell phones, cable and satellite TV, and Internet service.
We would be better off if the CRTC was scrapped and replaced by a body that put customer needs first, permitted more competition, and allowed unpopular services to go out of business.

The CBC website wants me to urge my government to both support this new tax AND prevent cable companies from passing it on to their customers. Instead, I urged my government to end the free ride for local TV stations by allowing cable subscribers to opt out of "basic cable". If half of us did that, together we would save almost a billion dollars per year.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Carbon tax weeds out everyone who isn't rich

From the National Post, February 01, 2010 (summarized)

The Pembina Institute, a left-wing think tank, says the current 3.33¢ per litre carbon tax in British Columbia needs to increase to 50¢ per litre - and that's in addition to federal and provincial sales taxes, plus other taxes that subsidize public transit.

British Columbia already has the highest gasoline prices in Canada because of these taxes, and raising them will make commuting even more expensive. But Vancouver also has the most expensive housing in Canada, so people are forced to commute to work from cities 30 km to 60 km away. Since the high speed public transit system doesn't reach the places where most commuters live, commuters have no choice but to pay the high gas prices.

Carbon taxes, in effect, are a way of rooting out middle and lower income workers who can't afford to live in Vancouver, and soon won't be able to afford to commute to Vancouver either.

My comment:

For those who do have access to transit, the fares are so high that two people travelling together spend almost as much commuting by transit as they would commuting by car - and even more if they have to drive to the transit station and pay to park there (especially with our new 21% tax on parking fees, plus federal and provincial taxes on top of that).

I've always thought that increased taxation is the worst way to try to fix environmental and other problems. Higher taxes hit the poor hardest. Taxes that hit working families hurt children twice: they have less money today, and their parents are forced to forgo saving for their retirement, so their children will have to care for them then and won't see much of an inheritance.

My parents lived through World War II and the postwar era when goods of all kinds were scarce. The government issued ration coupons to make sure everyone, rich or poor, got their fair share. There is no reason why environmental resources, such as the right to emit a certain amount of carbon, can't be shared equitably through rationing.

A common objection to rationing is that it creates a "black market" in the scarce goods. But there is really no moral objection to people trading their share for something they need more. And if the rationing is done through a secure network like the ones that support credit and debit cards, not only can the scarce goods be traded freely, but these transactions can even be taxed!

A rationing system would be better for the environment because it would directly limit the consumption of the scarce goods, instead of trying to influence consumption by overpricing them. And a free market in "ration rights" would produce a fairer distribution of consumption at a lower overall cost to consumers.

So why don't we do it that way? Two reasons: it's hard for any politician to admit that the real goal of punitive taxation is to create a de facto rationing system. And it's also hard for any government to resist an opportunity to collect taxes. When our governments are willing to level with us about the former and forgo the latter, we will start making progress on this issue.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Design vs Engineering

A lot of products these days seem to be impractical and have features designed strictly for "showroom appeal". A case in point is the high trunk decks, low roof lines and thick rear pillars on many current cars. These combine to hamper visibility to the rear, contributing to many road and parking accidents. Ironically, many of these vehicles now offer optional "rear visibility packages" consisting of a rear camera and a front video screen. An engineer would simply have put in bigger windows with thinner pillars. [Update 2012-10-31: A bill making its way through the US government would make such cameras mandatory on all future vehicles.]

The entire Apple product line is full of such design features, and since Apple's products are so fashionable, these ideas are now being copied by their competitors. To list just a few of the undesirable features of the Mac laptops I have worked with:

  • white case shows every speck of dirt
  • lid hinge design limits range of screen viewing angles
  • slot-loading DVD drive won't accept camcorder DVDs
  • flat-topped keys give no tactile feedback for centering fingers
[Update 2010-07-02: According to Computerworld, Apple's new iPhone 4 "represents, above all, the new power of designers over engineers and usability specialists...in three design areas [shape, antenna, case] Apple had a clear choice between elegance and usability, and chose elegance every time" The writer says the iPhone 4 is heavy, fragile, and drops calls unless it's held in a special way. See http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9178536/iPhone_4_Triumph_of_the_design_nerds.]
[Update 2012-10-31: Apple's iPhone 5 has got rid of the non-functional glass back of the iPhone 4, and now brags about how much thinner it is!]

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You shall not commit adultery

We usually associate the commandment "you shall not commit adultery" with unfaithfulness to one's marriage partner. However, the word "adulterate" has a much broader meaning: "To make impure by adding improper or inferior ingredients."

In recent years no country has been more in the news for adulterating its products than China. Here are some instances that I remember:
  • Pet food made from Chinese gluten (wheat protein) killed pets in Canada and the US. Food companies test the gluten they buy by measuring its nitrogen content, since protein contains nitrogen. The Chinese supplier sold them low-quality gluten adulterated with melamine, an inexpensive chemical high in nitrogen. The gluten passed the tests, but killed the pets. (Wikipedia article)
  • Metal figurines from China worn on children's charm bracelets are frequently recalled because they often contain a high percentage of toxic lead. (A typical recall) [Update, January 2010: "...some Chinese manufacturers [now] use cadmium, a carcinogenic heavy metal, to make charm bracelets and shiny pendants sold in the U.S. because they are banned from using lead..." - Business Week quoting Associated Press: ]
  • Painted toys made in China for major US companies had to be recalled when they were found to have lead-based pigments in the paint. One Chinese factory owner, distraught that a lifelong friend had sold him the paint with an assurance that it was lead-free, committed suicide. (Guardian.uk story)
  • Drug companies had to recall heparin products in the US and Europe because the Chinese source of the raw material (unrefined heparin) had deliberately adulterated it with a similar molecule that appeared to be heparin on standard tests, but killed patients. (New York Times story)
  • A major milk company in China discovered that the milk it was buying had been watered down and then adulterated with melamine to make it pass tests of protein content. The company concealed this problem for several months, perhaps to avoid a scandal during during the Beijing Olympics; during this delay they sold baby formula made from the contaminated milk, permanently harming thousands of babies. The problem was only revealed when the company told its major shareholder in New Zealand. Products containing Chinese milk were recalled all over Asia, and as far away as Canada and the US. (Times (UK) story)
  • An Australian company sold a children's craft kit containing beads that stuck together when sprayed with water. It had to recall all the kits when children began going into seizures and comas after swallowing the beads. It was discovered that the Chinese factory making the kits had replaced the safe but expensive glue with a cheaper chemical that turned into the drug GHB when swallowed. (New York Times article)
And those are just a few cases that I remember. After all that, my imagination had run out of new ways for Chinese manufacturers to poison their customers, but apparently theirs had not. Here are two news stories in today's Vancouver Province newspaper:

(Toxic Wallboard Story) (Are you affected?)

According to these news stories, since 2001 Canada has imported nearly 1,000,000 square metres of Chinese wallboard (North Americans call it Gyproc or Drywall). That's enough for 600 complete houses or 2000 apartments. Now some experts are saying that if your home has as few as three panels of that wallboard (one short wall!) your home may be unfit to live in and should be bulldozed. So this problem could affect tens of thousands of homes in Canada.

Wallboard is supposed to be gypsum (calcium sulphate). In Canada and the US the gypsum is usually from a mine or recycled from old or scrap wallboard. But the Chinese wallboard was made from calcium hydroxide that had already been used to "scrub" the smoke from power stations. Toxic substances removed from the smoke were absorbed by the calcium hydroxide, and are now being released from the wallboard into Canadian homes.

The main toxin is
hydrogen sulphide which causes (here I quote the newspaper) "serious health conditions and illnesses, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, eye irritations and respiratory difficulties". Nosebleeds are mentioned elsewhere in the story.

Hydrogen sulphide smells like rotten eggs, but our noses quickly get desensitized to it, so you won't smell it most of the time. But if you smell rotten eggs right after entering a closed building from the fresh air, it's probably there all the time. If you have any of the symptoms above, and they clear up when you go away for a few weeks, that's also a clue. Since hydrogen sulphide corrodes metals, two other good clues are that your silverware tarnishes quickly, and when an electrician checks the wiring behind your switches and outlets it looks blackened and scorched. The news stories recommend that if you suspect this problem is affecting your home, you should call researchers at America Watchdog's Chinese Drywall Complaint Center, 1-866-714-6466 or visit http://homeownersconsumercenter.com/.

This case, and all the cases I listed at the start, involved someone cutting costs by replacing a safe but expensive substance with something cheaper that is harmful to our health. These adulterated products are destroying China's reputation, which is unfortunate because the world needs China to succeed. The present political reality there, though not ideal, is better for the average Chinese citizen than any other regime that has prevailed in China during my lifetime; remember the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and Tiananmen Square (1989)?

Europe and America also had their era of unregulated trade in dangerously adulterated products, an era that ended only a century ago; let's hope that China catches up fast in this area, for everyone's sake.

Friday, August 22, 2008

RIP Plymouth Acclaim

Yesterday I drove my 1993 Plymouth Acclaim (odometer reading 392,540 km, equal to 244,000 miles) to the scrapyard, which gave me a certificate entitling me to a reward from our provincial government's Scrap-It program. The reward is worth more than the car, so I'm ahead. (If you live in British Columbia and are interested in this program, see http://www.scrapit.ca/. Your car or light truck must be 1995 or older, licensed in this province for the past year, and still drivable. Rewards range from $1200 to $2250, depending on what you replace your scrapped vehicle with.)

During my Plymouth's lifetime I recorded every expense along with the date and odometer reading (kilometres), and now that the books are closed I've done some analysis. You may be surprised to learn the true cost of operating a vehicle. It's more than fuel; it includes scheduled maintenance, repairs, insurance, and depreciation.

Back in 1994 when the car was new, fuel was cheap (40 cents per litre) and no repairs were needed, but depreciation was high. As the car aged, depreciation decreased but repairs increased, and fuel has risen steadily and is now $1.45 per litre. The net result is that the operating cost began at 10 cents/km and rose 10% every year, reaching 37 cents/km this year - about the same operating cost as a new vehicle. The 15-year average was 18 cents/km.

The annual cost to drive 16,000 km/year averaged $3,600 per year, or $10 per day. Remember, that's a 15-year average; currently (2008) it's $4,800 per year, or $13/day.

Consumer Reports has two pithy sayings about when to replace your car: (1) "The cheapest car you will ever own is the one you own now." (2) "Don't replace your car unless (a) it can't be made safe, or (b) the repairs will cost more than the car is worth." Over the past year, in anticipation of the end, I deferred several repairs that together were worth more than the car itself. With its clunking suspension, clicking CV joints and (recently) its tendency to run hot, I was not sure it would still be "drivable" so I could claim the reward. But it made it.

My replacement car is a 2005 Toyota Echo, the least expensive vehicle on Consumer Reports' list of "reliable cars with good fuel economy". I chose the four-door automatic model, not the even more economical stick-shift hatchback. So far, in mostly city driving it has averaged 8.3 litres per 100 km, which beats my old Plymouth Acclaim by more than 25%. For my readers who use gallons, that's 29 miles per US gallon or 34 miles per Imperial gallon.

[Update, August 2009: I've now had the Echo for a year, including a fierce winter, a hot summer with the air conditioner running constantly, and a 3,000 km trip this month to Edmonton and back on winding mountain roads. Prior to the Edmonton trip,
overall fuel economy for the year was 8.6 L/100km (28 miles per US gallon, 33 miles per Imperial gallon). But the real surprise was the Edmonton trip, which averaged 6.2 L/100km (39 miles per US gallon, 46 miles per Imperial gallon).

[Update, August 2012: The Echo now has almost 100,000 km, and seems just as good as when I bought it. Maintenance has been inexpensive, except that the air conditioner needed a new condenser.

Meanwhile, my wife's 1993 Plymouth Voyager minivan reached 450,000 km and needed repairs worth more than the vehicle, so we replaced it. She still needed a flat loading space with sliding doors to load musical equipment for her concerts, but with our nest almost empty a minivan was too big. She loves her 2010 Mazda5, purchased through Robert Montgomery of Quinella Auto Brokers. I know he found us a great deal, because I've seen the dealer's net cost - it's available through Consumer Reports.]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Idioms and metaphors

The first rule for communicating in English with someone whose native language is not English is: avoid idioms. Idioms are those sayings that mean something different from the plain meaning of their words. They are closely related to metaphors, which are similar but shorter - I see metaphors as idioms that have been whittled down through long usage to just one or two words. ("Whittled down" is a metaphor.)

The idiom most often cited by English teachers is "raining cats and dogs," which means "raining heavily". In this context, "heavily" probably started out as a metaphor for "a lot", but now has come to actually mean that.

Sometimes we forget that our expressions actually are idioms (or metaphors). We often read in the newspapers that a building was "gutted by fire"; this ought to feel like a strange mixture of concepts, because the expression "gutted" is derived from the practice of cutting open an animal one is going to eat, and pulling out its guts because we prefer not to eat those parts. So the term "gutted by fire" originally meant that the exterior of the building remained standing but its interior had been destroyed. Today, "gutted by fire" may simply mean "destroyed by fire", and no longer retains any mental connection with the butchering of food animals.

If you are a native speaker of English, idioms can sneak up on you and be out of your mouth before you realize it. After you have used an idiom and realized that it has confused your listener, you may even catch yourself using another idiom to try to explain the first one. For example, if you say "I can pull this off" and see only a blank expression, you might explain that "pull this off" means "get away with this". You have simply swapped one idiom for another, and you are no closer to explaining the plain meaning, which is "I can do this without experiencing negative consequences, such as being arrested."

And then there are the cases where an idiom becomes confusing because the plain meaning of the words intrudes into the meaning of the sentence. It is one thing to say "she broke off her engagement to the sailor"; quite another to say "she didn't like the tattoo on his arm, so she broke it off".

News articles and headlines often contain idioms or metaphors for which the plain meaning is related to the topic. An article about birth control may use words like "conceptually", while one about guns may use words like "triggered". Psychologists say that writers do this unconsciously, which is more than we can say for the headline writers who give us such gems as
"Auto workers drive hard bargain," or "Fire chief marries old flame."

Sometimes the mental image caused by an inappropriate idiom or metaphor is very funny. I once read a technical book about the process of making pulp and paper. One of the first steps when a log arrives at the factory is to remove its bark. The book said this was usually done by hydraulic jets, but "in some older mills, barking is done by dogs on chains." I pictured rows of restrained rottweilers making a fierce din. What the author was really talking about was sharp metal objects, metaphorically called "dogs", attached to a bicycle-type chain that scrapes the outside of the log.

And yesterday, CBC Radio 1 interviewed a fashion designer who promoted one of her creations : "It looks like a sack on the rack, but it looks good on any body. Anyone can pull off this dress." You can imagine the mental images that brought to mind!

So if your goal is to be understood, speak plainly whenever you get on your soapbox. (Oops, see how easily they sneak in...)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The origin of the Unity Candle ceremony?

When Kathy and I were married in May 1969, the minister who performed our ceremony challenged us to re-think the function of the various traditions about weddings and if necessary, create our own.

We wrote our own vows (now commonplace), and instead of a traditional wedding cake we distributed scripture portions we had signed and dated as souvenirs of our wedding. But the innovation that seems to have been completely original and had the most lasting effect on others was our decision to improvise a ceremony involving two candles.

Early in the ceremony, we had our candle-lighter light a pair of tall candles standing in separate bases side-by-side on a table near where we were going to stand during the ceremony. These two candles symbolized us, the bride and groom. When the minister pronounced us "husband and wife", we rotated the candle bases. We had deliberately inserted the candles into the bases not quite vertically, but at a slight tilt. The tilt was originally leaning away from the congregation, to make it almost unnoticeable. When we rotated the bases, the two candles now tilted toward each other and touched at the top, burning with a single flame and becoming welded together by the wax running down and filling the gap between them. We kept these merged candles on our bedroom dresser for many years after the ceremony.

Neither of us can recall ever seeing or hearing of such a ceremony before our own wedding. We believe it was an original idea that came to us as we planned our ceremony. A year or two later, we attended the wedding of a friend (who had attended our wedding) and saw a similar ceremony, except that this time the original two candles were used to light a third, central candle and were then extinguished, so that only the central candle remained alight.

After that, we began to see similar ceremonies at many of the weddings we were invited to. Today, the minister often announces "the lighting of the unity candle" as if this had always been an integral part of the wedding ceremony. Wedding planners have a checkbox for "Unity Candle ceremony" on their checklists. Catholic websites explain why this ceremony contradicts Catholic tradition concerning the use of candles. There are catalogs of expensive unity candles. There are websites that describe the correct etiquette for the ceremony, and give versions of the ceremony that involve the couple's parents and even their children from previous marriages.

Yet there are also websites that claim the tradition is only ten years old, and Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Unity_candle) was able to trace this ceremony back only as far as 1976 in Illinois. The church we were married in (Mennonite) is a very close-knit community with many congregations in Illinois, so it's entirely possible that our ceremony had taken root there by 1976.

Given the above facts, we (Alan and Kathy) sincerely believe that we invented this modern ceremony. Of course we would be happy to relinquish this claim if anyone can provide evidence that it is even older than 1969. There are many instances on record of someone producing what they believed was an original work, only to learn that it was based on a forgotten memory. So if you can prove an earlier instance of this ceremony, let me know.

Update 2007-07-30: When I first wrote this in May 2007 I added a brief summary of it to the Wikipedia entry on "Unity Candle", with a link to our website for the full story. Amazingly, an anonymous user felt free to alter the details of our wedding, claiming that Kathy and I created this ceremony because "their mothers...insisted on a significant role in the ceremony." The truth is that on our wedding day, my mother had been dead for nearly three years, and Kathy's mother wasn't involved in our candle ceremony. Another user removed the link to our website and replaced it with a link to this blog entry, which has the exact same content. Wikipedia is a useful resource, but apparently it's also a playground for those with time on their hands and/or an axe to grind.