Are we Monopolized?

Some services are provided by a single, or very small group of, service providers. Should they be taken over by the most relevant level of government?

We have government control of a lot of things – air traffic, for example. We have inadequately centralized government control of more things – Stock Exchanges, for example. We might be better off if we had government control over more things – compulsory licensing for needed drugs, for example. (If you think we have government control over this, go check out the Apotex experiment with AIDS drugs for Africa. The “enabling” legislation created a procedural nightmare, as it appears it was designed to do.)

We have few news sources, news is almost monopolized. We have few fuel sources. Natural gas delivery is a monopoly for me. Our Internet is delivered by deliberately checker-boarded individual companies that have monopolies in their “squares”. Clearly in all such cases the potential for abuse exists.

Thus the question: are we monopolized? and if we are, should government take over the monopoly? Is it just a choice between being greedily run, versus badly run? That’s the dumb question here.

If we voted on it, would we have more RIDE checks?

The MADD people will be all over me for this one, so let me point out that MADD should really be named MAADD, Mothers Advertising Against Drunk Driving. They spend most of their dollars on advertising – which, unlike other charities, actually makes sense in their case.

What makes me want the question put to a vote is, the statistics. My memory was that for every thousand people stopped last year, something like three charges were laid. The police, again this from memory, said that that proved how effective the RIDE stops were.

I disagree.

Firstly, I am sure I could tell you where to set up a RIDE check and get much more than a 0.3% hit rate. I am sure that one tavern I might name would stridently object to its clientele being so discriminated against. Perhaps the MADD people should find some way to let patrons of establishments know that a designated driver, a cold-sober one, is needed to get out of the parking lot. I think that makes sense. I think that not doing the spot check in such locations is gambling with lives.

Secondly, I am sure I could find a better use of police force time than a generic checkpoint in a generic area.

Thirdly, I am pretty sure most of us would agree that the annoyance of being stopped for no reason, with very little to show for it, does not particularly help the police image.

Doing it this way, with steadily decreasing results, looks to me like a second-class use of time. What do you think?

Who Makes Municipal Decisions?

Some really dumb things get done. I suspect that certain lobbies are given visible successes to hush them up. Here are two dumb things that got done within driveable distance of where I live.

The West Mall Bicycle Lane. This was billed as going from Bloor Street to The Queensway. It does not.

The section between Bloor and the bridge over Dundas never got a bike lane. The roadway is four lanes. Parking is allowed on the east side, and there are always a few cars parked there. So the roadway is  effectively one lane northbound, and two lanes southbound. It would have been possible to put a bike lane in by removing the extra lane and repainting. The homes here look prosperous, perhaps they were consulted and refused.

Somewhat south of Dundas the bike lane begins. The roadway was widened to allow this, and a sidewalk added to the west side (there has been one on the east side for ages). I marvelled that a bike lane was wanted here, as I have seen a bicycle along here exactly two times more often than I have been riding my bike along here. People don’t cycle on this road. But we now have a bike lane – sort of.

The bike lane does not reach the Queensway. Instead, it ends with no warning on a curve just as you begin to turn and descend to go under the railway tracks. Where the lane ends it is not possible to jump the curb – the sidewalk here never has pedestrians on it, so an escape for a trapped cyclist might be a good idea.The sidewalk does not go under the bridge either – at least not on the west side. The bridge is exactly four lanes of pavement, so without building a new one, it was certain that the bike lane would never go through here.

So that’s one really dumb municipal decision – a bike lane that nobody uses and ends dangerously.

Now for another weird municipal decision.

There is a place to walk, or cycle, or walk a dog that is accessible from Creekbank Road and Sismet Road. This used to be a very rough trail alongside the Etobicoke Creek until a second sewer was put through – apparently for Brampton – at which time the trail was smoothed over and paved, section by section. While the work was ongoing, there was legal parking on Sismet, everywhere. Once the work was done, a large sign was put up advertising the park, and showing where car parking was. Except that there isn’t any parking lot. And at the same time, new no parking signs were added to this street. The street is very wide, without lane markings but more than four lanes width for sure.

Finally someone had some sense and put stickers over the arrows on the last two no-parking signs, making it legal to park at the extreme end of the street.

Why would you put in a nice walkway, clean up the park, add a bridge, and then make it inaccessible? Nobody lives close to this area, it’s more or less an industrial park with the exception of one church. You are probably going to drive to get here.

I note that this location is in Mississauga, whereas the bike lane is in Etobicoke. So neither municipality has a monopoly on dumb decisions.

Is TV Content that Expensive to Create?

I ask this after watching the news the other night. The Canadian team had beaten another team by eight to one. In the one-hour news program, this fact was presented four separate times. The same video clip was used repeatedly as well.

I have a sick sort of game I play when watching a Canadian local news channel: I try to find the most-copied clip. I think the record is five times, but I might have slept through additional repetitions.

Some other things the news stations do to avoid real content:

  • Talking heads. “This has been me, standing here at this corner. Back to you, sitting there in the studio”. There is no content in these cute little hand-offs.
  • Logos and logo-like shots. Panning around the studio, playing a standard introduction. “These are the voyages of the star ship …. ” Again, no content.
  • Really dumb interviews. There is a special vocabulary for wine tasters. There is a sort of inverse special vocabulary for sports team members. words like execute, but mostly monosyllabic. Either the team won or lost. They are either happy with how they played or are not. It does not take three team member interviews to communicate this.
  • Playing the same “big” story to the hilt. If there is a disaster in Japan, all the economic news gets pushed aside, all the political uprisings and ordered murders in unfortunate countries get pushed aside. If there is a flood, you will see the same footage of running water several times, and sometimes for several days’ worth of “news coverage.”

Real content must be very expensive to create. Real advertising must contribute very small fees, so we need so much of it to be profitable. Or do we?

A cynic might suggest that the TV stations know their days are numbered, and are cashing in on our credulous watching of thin, poorly-made content sandwiched by extensive, carefully and manipulatively crafted commercials.

Why did TV Stations ask for more advertising time?

TV stations once were limited in the percentage of time that can be advertising. They got this restriction removed a year or so ago. It used to be something like twenty percent, or twelve minutes per hour. Now it is unlimited on ordinary TV stations.

What do the stations I watch do with this extra ad time? They advertise other programs on the same channel or carrier company. They advertise other media which is themselves “re-formed”, i.e. co-subsidiary companies such as radio or newspapers. They run the same ad twice in the same commercial break. They run the same ad and a shortened version in the same program slot.

Is real content that expensive? That’s for another dumb question. Is this large dilution of air time quality really selling more stuff? Am I going to start getting all my news from the Internet because it is faster, more complete, and any ads that are in it can be skipped over?

Why did TV stations think they needed more advertising? Is this like the tobacco industry, which at one time was a big advertiser.

One final dumb question: does anyone else out there think that the various “quit smoking” devices are becoming a substitute nicotine habit? That a dispenser of tiny, quick-hit oral nicotine pills is compared to a lighter? Should this advertising be limited, as tobacco advertising is?

Computer Support Experience


I was forced to replace my wife’s computer, as it died. The decision was, go cheap or go “good for five years”. The salesperson at Tiger Direct suggested an Acer desktop for the latter. (Disclosure: I have no interest in Tiger Direct, Acer, Mozilla, OpenOffice, MalwareBytes, Microsoft, or any other technology company or supplier except that I may be using their software and perhaps their support. This blog entry is about support, a bittersweet experience that, for the most part, has been surprisingly pleasant and helpful.)

My wife’s computer usage is not that technical nor subtle; I got the old machine up long enough to capture some files, settings, favourites and did the best I could with my knowledge at that time.

It occurred to me that my own desktop, older than hers, could also fail; and that my dependencies on old technology were hugely larger than hers. So, seeing how nice her new computer was, I got a similar one. I then began the migration effort to put all my stuff on the new machine.

It turns out that workarounds are required. Windows XP supported old, very old, programs that won’t run on Windows 7 64 bit. I used old old utilities and self-coded utilities to make XP files I needed accessible under Windows7. One example of my difficulty will suffice.

PCOutline is (was) a very nice program for collecting thoughts. I used it whenever I was uncertain of the final organization of what I was starting, as in writing a presentation or designing a story. Trust me that this program had unique features that I exploited. However, it is not 32 bit and thus canNot run in Windows 7. What to do? Export every outline I really need, one by one, manually, onto a “structured file” format. Run a program I wrote (in 1987?) to convert that format to Script/GML. Run a program I wrote more recently, thank goodness in FreeBasic (which seems to run in Win7) to convert Script/GML to .rtf (Rich Text Format) usable in Wordpad and Word.

My point here is, I needed to run old stuff to get a format usable by newer stuff. And, I was able to do it by myself. The conversion from Script/GML to RTF is incomplete, limited by my needs, uses a large parameter file, and is over 300 lines of FreeBasic code.

I should in fairness give FreeBasic a kudo. The compiler works, the website documentation is good, it does the job – and it is free.

All this to point out that I sort-of know what I’m doing, but have knowledge gaps of various sizes when dealing with Windows 7.  Thus my need for support on various issues.

Kudos first.

I have always wanted to be able to synchronize mail from computer to computer. This is not really possible using ThunderBird from Mozilla. (I have repeatedly suggested that this is a shortcoming, but no workaround was ever suggested to me.) Now I have a new problem: I want to move my eMail, all of it, just once, from one computer to another. I keep the mail on my machine because it includes legal stuff (rejection letters from magazines, for example), support stuff, et cetera. I don’t want it on Google or Yahoo where it might be hacked or lost.

So I went into the Mozilla forums and asked for a way of moving mail from one machine to another. The first response eMail listed several hotlinks, one of which was to MozBack(up?) which in fact allowed me to collect both FireFox and ThunderBird setup on the XP machine, and install them on the Win7 machine. Accounts, server settings, passwords, mail folders and contents; bookmarks, options, startup file. Amazing. I had an answer within a day, and it worked.

Thank you, the Mozilla community, for this excellent support.

Personal Editor 32 / PE64. I was once an IBM employee, and there was a thing called employee-written-software. I contributed a few small programs as payback for value I received. One thing was an editor someone else wrote called Personal Editor, or PE. Later extended to PE2. Later commercialized as PE32. You can find the latter via google search. Once I tried this upgrade, worked around a few minor incompatibilities, and settled down, I found this editor to be ideal (as customized by me) for me (writing, mostly poetry; and driving odd utilities to format and manipulate files).

PE32 sort-of runs under Win7 64-bit, then crashes. So I upgraded to PE64. There was a discount for old users. The program worked. I had installation questions and eMailed Paolo Chiartano about them. He explained why to run it from where and some non-obvious facts about how key files are found. This support, via eMail, was free. It was thoughtful and effective.

Thank you, Paolo Chiartano, for excellent support of PE64.

Ordering of folders. I have a folder called, Jim’s Tools, which normally is icons pointing to programs, directories, specific spreadsheets, et cetera. I normally order this in a specific, idiosyncratic way. Windows 7 will not permit this. You can have icons, and sort them by various criteria, but canNot place them just as you would like. They must be in some “order” by some attribute.

There is a fix for this, which involves registry changes. A supplied, commented, .bat file should do this.

I will back up my registry first, I guess, and try it. I found the answer among others saying that it could not be done under any circumstances. Wild. That someone took the time to create a commented .bat file makes me fairly certain that it will in fact work.

So, conditional kudos for the Microsoft support community. My lack of registry courage will be overcome once I find out how to back up and recover….

Sharing drives between computers. This is not a kudo. I have been trying to do this for a week or more, and could not achieve the following:

Windows 7 computer shares three drives (partitions). Windows XP can “net use” and see and modify those drives. The computers are both on the same router.

May I note that I have done this between XP computers for ages. I am not a novice at drive sharing, but suddenly I am at Win7 drive sharing.

I solved this myself after much trial and some insightful advice from my son. I did post my solution on a Microsoft website.

Open Office, and Linking spreadsheets. This is not a kudo. I used to use Lucid3D for financial spreadsheets. It had one very nice capability: I could track the history of an investment, through years of re-investment, in a simple spreadsheet. I could cause the top row of this spreadsheet to be “=” the current, latest row, on a cell-by-cell basis. Then I could have the Main spreadsheet have a single row which “hotlinked” the simple spreadsheet top row. Repeat for every recurring investment, and you have my basic tracking system. One summary, many contributors.

Imagine my surprise when, with luckily-formed google searches, I found out that Microsoft Excel could do all of the above, albeit slightly differently. copy, edit, past special, paste link. tools, edit, edit cells in place – off. It was just as good as Lucid, in a more-standard (Lucid went kaput in about 2003 I think) program.

So, by hand, I recreated my entire Lucid3D spreadsheet suite of files in Excel. I am using an incredibly old version of Office, which I did not want to install on my new Win7 computer. So, of course, I installed OpenOffice. And used my Excel files therein.

This is weird. If I do the “excel” incantation to link a new previously un-linked sub-spreadsheet file row, it generates completely different cell references than those created by Excel and then re-saved by OO. There is no option comparable to “edit cells in place” to turn off: from Excel I could “jump” to the linked spreadsheet with a double click; from Open Office I cannot.

I posted this minor problem on the Open Office website and got …. nothing. As I said, this is not a kudo.

Acer, Hotkey Utility. This is not a kudo.

I need ctrl-f12 as I use it at the very start of a PE64 editing session. This utility captures that keystroke and starts some fool game program. Opening the utility seems to show that ctrl-f1 goes to the utility, and SomeKeyStroke goes to the (whatever that is). You cannot take a hotkey out; you cannot see the hotkey used, and the utility claims that it will choose a hotkey for you. This is, for me, gratuitous crap. So I asked Acer support how to disable this without using add/remove programs to un-install it. I do not want to have to turn this off every time I decide to run my editor of choice, eh?

You would not believe the suggestions I got. Disable services.exe was one. Take it out of start menu, a second: it is not in start menu, or it would have been deleted already, eh? Of three responses, two suggested I go to the Acer fee for service web site.

I tried to point out that I was an Acer user, but had never needed support before, and was disappointed in the level I was getting.

I bought my first Acer, a netbook, against the recommendations of almost every tech guru I know. Can’t add memory. Can’t change the hard drive. Not literally true, but it is, apparently, a b…ch to do so on this netbook. Luckily the drive has not failed.

The netbook has proven itself on several trips, and on frequent (xcopy) synchronizations between desktop and netbook. (see issue above.) Despite detractors’ comments on battery life, I find it pretty good.

I bought our second, and third, Acer because the components seemed to be pretty good – cpu, memory, and decent graphics card.

I will probably consider Acer on a later purchase. AND, I will not forget that a very simple support request: how do I stop a hotkey utility from being loaded automatically – was met with bafflegab, for-fee suggestions, odd warnings, plus mis-advice.

Acer computers are, imho, a mixed bag. If you intend to upgrade your netbook, I am told there is a nightmare video showing how hard it is to get at the hard drive or memory. If you buy your netbook “as-is” you are probably OK.

I cannot help remembering that my daughter is using my very very old IBM laptop. Its hard drive died, and with some software help and a new drive, I set it back up. When she took it over, we went to Tiger Direct and they upped the memory from .5 gb (more than standard) to 2 gb.

My point: a human being could upgrade an IBM laptop, at least my old version. I am told often that Acer netbooks cannot be upgraded with reasonable effort. This would seem to make the original build more complex as well, eh?

Tiger Direct. This is a kudo.

Installed memory on my, now my daughter’s, IBM laptop. Maximized the available memory. (More that I thought could be installed.) Got it working for a ten buck fee. Good.

Sold me the hard disk I upgraded in same laptop, ages before. Good.

Many other interactions. Pointed out which cables were cheaper (packaging). Had Brother 7820N cartridge at reasonable price. and on and on.

I should point out that I don’t use “tiger direct” direct; I go to the physical store. I find them to be fairly competitive, and often helpful. That’s pretty good for a store that’s much bigger than, say The Source.

One view of the Aboriginal Dilemma

We, as a country, have created an untenable situation for our aboriginal people. They have contributed to this situation, but it is not entirely of their doing, not by a long shot.

There is no such thing as a traditional life. Hunting from snowmobiles with modern cartridge rifles is not traditional. Use of fossil fuels and modern materials is not traditional.

There appears to be no such thing as integration either. Reserves have, at least in those cases in the news, poor housing, poor health care, poor income levels. Yet a study of aboriginals living in Hamilton (in the Toronto Star recently) found that their in-city living conditions were also substandard. It is unclear why this is so.

Generally the cure for substandard conditions is education, and of both genders. Perhaps our standard education is viewed as an insidious attack on another culture. Perhaps it is, if the goal is integration. If we can get them to flip burgers and drive taxis, maybe they will look more like us. To do this we have to make them think more like us. Perhaps the failure to integrate is a cultural hold-out. Our Canadian attempt to not-integrate with the USA is a similar cultural hold-out, one that is under constant attack, sometimes from our own Federal Government. We can find some sympathy for cultural hold-outs, as should those of us speaking French, for example.

Nevertheless I believe that part of the aboriginal dilemma is in the folkways. By folkways, I mean how everything is implicitly understood (in a community) to work: birth death marriage relationships and most importantly, how goods are obtained and distributed or shared. I think we have broken the aboriginal folkways. It is not clear who could, or how anyone could, design a new set of folkways that work for the aboriginals and allow them to have things work for them at the same time. Perhaps they have to do it themselves.

Or are they “trapped in their own world” of not-integration and still not-traditional, whereby the poverty trap holds them from generation to generation? What to do? Lives are being wasted, for what?

Aboriginal Finances

All of my “knowledge” of this topic comes from newspapers and web news sources. I do not live near a reserve nor do I have the privilege of conversing with aboriginal individuals. Still, there has been enough news on aboriginal financial situations to make some conclusions almost inescapable.

Anyone with better information on this topic, please respond to this post. Meanwhile, here’s what I think.

A few chiefs seem to have a lot of money, or a lot of money has disappeared. This is generally from our tax dollars. Many of those non-chiefs living on reserves seem to dwell in poverty, disease, with potential for various drug abuse as well. Nothing the government does ever seems to fix this.

Sadly, this seems to be the same as the pattern of our society overall: a few have most of the wealth, while services are being cut for the most vulnerable. Inner city slums seem to have more than their share of violence and drug traffic.

This comparison puts those chiefs who are doing well personally while their bands are doing badly, in the same light as the rich one-percent being demonstrated against all across North America. While the details vary, the overall we-versus-they attitude of those controlling resources has the same bad odour of selfishness associated with it, at least to those who are not millionaires.

It seems that aboriginal finances is financing the few at the expense of the many. Comments, anyone?

Why do Municipalities Borrow?

Mississauga has, apparently, not needed to borrow money for ages. Now it thinks it should start doing so. I must have missed something in the logic of this.

The municipality has been a sort of Ponzi scheme, whereby development fees were used to fund things, neglecting to put aside maintenance money for those new developments when they become old developments with decrepit infrastructure. This works as long as the new development is going ahead faster enough (sic!) to keep ahead of ongoing costs from old development.

Now that that era is coming to an end, Mississauga is finding itself short of cash. What I don’t understand is, how borrowing can fix this.

Borrowing assumes on can pay back, with interest, money that one cannot find today. Municipalities that continually borrow more to fund old debt are also in a Ponzi scheme; eventually the future will arrive in which the debt can’t be refinanced. We’ve seen this in countries, states, provinces, and cities.

So, the question must have a good answer, but I don’t know what it is. I think it is dumb for municipalities to borrow, unless they are guaranteed to find new revenue streams in the future that they cannot access in the present.

Anyone who understands this differently from me, please comment.


Headlines, real and imagined

In each case below the real headline is the first one.

Terrorists latest tool is Twitter. Unabomber licks US postage stamps. Anthrax sent in envelopes by mail, random inspection of all messages urged.

H&M shamed over digital models. Sears store windows use identical plastic dummies. Catholic madonnas made from head, hands, and clothes. Copying is evil, especially when easily detected.

Listeriosis victims include provincial health authorities. Maple Leaf Foods apologizes, promises completely thorough new antiseptic procedures – four times. Maple Leaf Foods closes Toronto plant completely. Maple Leaf Foods changes name to Fleur-de-Lis Aliment.

Attawapiskat forced to pay consultant $1300 a day. Normal consultant rate is $200-300K per year: that is, 154-230 days work at the above rate. Natives forced to pay someone to fix their budget when they’re broke, a gift from a caring government.