Food Tax

It has been suggested that sales tax should be levied on food.

It has been suggested that such a tax would help the poor, as our wonderful government would then, supposedly, apply that tax to some form of ? what ? tax relief?

This is a really dumb idea that should be squashed like the parasitic bug it is. Write your MP. Write your MPP. Write your councillor. Tell them this is a cruel joke.

More, Trade

Our Prime Minister is busily trying to increase our trade with China. He points to a growing trade volume, in both directions. One thing not clearly mentioned is, what the balance of trade is.

The last graph I saw, the trade volume went up more than five times over some five years.

In the same graph, our purchases were more than five times our sales.

So, when we trade with China, we increase our trade deficit. Linearly.

We also probably eliminate Canadian jobs. Even our hockey skates are made in China, but “designed in Canada.”

Why is this such a great idea? Is it because the Chinese want our tar sands oil, and our Prime Minister likes Alberta more than Ontario?

That’s not really a dumb question, is it?

Fake, Explosives

The other day there was a story about a police sting in which fake explosives were sold to, alleged, terrorists. I am reminded of the Toronto 18, whose police informant was the only member with a firearm. One wonders what the value of some of these police stings is.

So here’s today’s dumb question:

If police really are stopping terrorists by selling fake explosives, could they please explain why we have so few real explosions? If real terrorists can buy real explosions, shouldn’t there be some bangs going off somewhere? Or are the only perpetrators those dumb enough to buy fake explosives, once talked into it by helpful undercover police?

How does this work, really? Comments, anyone?

Mike McCormack

This is the first post in a new category, “Person of Interest”. Mike McCormack caught my attention with these words: McCormack also said that once Cavanagh is cleared, those responsible for his being charged and prosecuted for murder “will be held accountable.” Asked to elaborate, he added: “The association will use every legal means to hold these people accountable.” This text appears in a Toronto Star article available here. This could be interpreted as a threat. In the same article these words appear: Falconer was asked his reaction when told that the officer was given special privileges — allowed to enter and leave court through a garage behind the judge’s entrance, with a small police motorcade.

I begin to think that a different set of rules apply, and that Mike McCormack thinks this should indeed be the case, when a police officer is charged with a serious crime.

In another news story, Mike McCormack seems to think he can endorse political candidates, when the police services board said in December 2008 that the police cannot.

When Mike McCormack became police union president, the star had this to say:

The controversial son of a former police chief, who successfully fought accusations of being a crooked cop and was recently convicted of insubordination, now heads the force’s union.

Mike McCormack was fined for insubordination. In this article the following quote appears:

McCormack was charged for running the name of former Star reporter John Duncanson, an award-winning journalist who specialized in covering police corruption, through three law enforcement databases in January 2008.

as does this quote:

Some of the stories Duncanson wrote involved McCormack’s brother, William Jr., who, along with one-time union head Rick McIntosh, had been indicted on corruption charges for allegedly soliciting and accepting bribes from nightclub owners in Toronto’s Entertainment District. Those charges were stayed when Justice Bonnie Croll ruled the two men’s right to a fair trial had been breached by the Crown’s excessive delays in bringing the matter forward.

The CBC News did a story on some of the above. I leave you to read it if you are interested. A large number of cases were thrown out. It’s a disturbing article.

What’s my point here? Perhaps that the police union head should consider not being so voluble on a case that has yet to be tried, and in which it appears that the police officer now charged was indeed given a special ride in and out of the courthouse. It already has the faint taint of special treatment. Let’s keep this one as above board as humanly possible. Let’s not make it look like threats of bad outcomes are being hinted at.

CRS report on the F35

The Federation of American Scientists has a website, www.fas.org. On that website is a subsection called Secrecy News, published by Steven Aftergood. I am a fan. It is possible to get updates eMailed to you, and I do.It is possible to contribute from Canada, and on a couple of occa$ions, I have. Aftergood is an expert on secrecy and has been called in front of Congress to testify on it. He is an advocate of information freedom.

So much for background. The F35 Joint Strike Fighter is a bit of a lemon. The project is overrunning. The Brits have decided to cut the B version. Good thing; they were considering updating their aircraft carriers to take advantage of it.

A Congressional Research Service report on the F35 is available here.

I will make a few points from this report.This is from memory after a single reading. Do feel free to check me by reading it yourself, eh? {8;^>}

  • Canada’s contribution is stated to be between $125 and $175 million. We are not a serious partner in this report. There are eight countries outside the USA participating. Only the UK is considered to be a tier one contributor.
  • Offsetting cash for participation was stated as Not being part of this joint development. Later we find that Israel got a Lot of offsetting cash, and are committed to purchasing fewer planes than we (Canada) are. Apparently we whined nicely on receiving this news.
  • The B version is in deep trouble. It uses aluminum where other versions use titanium. Odd bits associated with vertical landing are failing (hinges, for one example, on air flaps).
  • The project is, indeed (as hinted elsewhere in this blog, I can guess right sometimes, eh?) so far over budget as to require a formal review and justification as being In The National Defence Critical Interest to proceed.
  • The Brits aren’t too happy with technology transfer. Apparently the code to run the onboard computers (which run everything, eh?) was not, and then was, going to be shared.
  • The Americans aren’t too happy with technology transfer. They think they may be giving other nations too much information. Italy wants to have an assembly plant.
  • Dual procurement seems to have gone by the board. The “136 engine” was dropped. The ejection seat is made outside the USA.
  • Weight appears to be a problem. ? fuses ? in the hydraulic lines, and a cockpit fire extinguisher, have been dropped, apparently to save weight. This means that a “ballistic” attack could cost a plane. Translation: a bullet could leave the pilot with a fire and no means to put it out.
  • The plane will cost perhaps $300 million. Each. This could go up. The official cost is already north of $250 million.
  • The project used a technique of overlapping building and testing. The assumption was that computer modelling would find most of the flaws. This has been contentious and appears to have been an expensive decision.
  • Most other countries have greatly reduced their intended plane purchase count. The obvious exceptions are Canada (80 to 65, maybe) and Israel (20 to 40, maybe). Did I mention that Israel is getting a financial kickback of some sort? see next.
  •  Israel announced that it had an agreement for $5.3 billion in proposed offsets as part of its deal to acquire 20 F-35s, leading to Canadian objections that their much larger investment would yield a proportionally smaller share of offset work. This is an exact quote from the report. May I point out that 20 times $300 million is $6 billion? They may get the planes for free. We (Canada) definitely will not.

Enough already. Read the report. eMail your MP, your MPP, Stephen Harper, and Dalton McGuinty. I don’t think the minister of defence really listens to anyone but Stephen Harper, whom I doubt of listening to anyone.  (Maybe our provincial Premier can get us a better equalization payments or hospital funding deal by agreeing to shut up about the F35. How’s that for cynicism, eh?)

Tell them that we don’t need this plane. Wait until it actually flies. The Saudis just bought F15s. Why do we need F35s? This is a ridiculous expense, along with prisons, that makes no sense. It doesn’t even create much in the way of jobs. Tell your MP to stop this thing. Tell Stephen Harper that you can add and subtract, and read a CRS report. Ask him to do the same thing.

After all, it is your money. It is our country.

Bully, Pulpit

We may be about to see several Toronto civil servants summarily dismissed. This could happen as soon as Tuesday. What is disturbing about this is the pattern of threats and bullying against those who, with their expertise and experience, have ideas that differ from the elected politicians.

I hereby make a confession. I once sent an eMail to then-Mayor Miller. In this eMail I urged him to start showing some leadership. (This was a gross error on my part.) Instead he took a page from the playbook of Stephen Harper, whereby important decisions are made in committees and those committees’ memberships are chosen by fiat of the leader. Members who disagree with, or embarrass, the leader, with their new ideas are simply pushed out. This leads to a form of leadership which approaches dictatorship. There is only one idea in the room, only one mind assumed to be functioning. It implies an intellectual arrogance of some magnitude.

While Stephen Harper is definitely an intelligent man, he is for sure not the smartest person in every room on every possible question.

In a problem-solving meeting, the most valuable person in the room is the one who, by asking a dumb question, going off on a weird tangent, expressing a novel approach – the one who, by doing something not in the agreed-on playbook, allows many others in the room to see another facet of the problem, and thus other roads and means to solution. The most important mind in the room moves from moment to moment. Good technical leaders generally know this; perhaps they come into their expertise solving less-political problems, where a new idea is just that: a new idea. Not a threat to a large accumulation of status-quo we-always-do-this decisions.

I have it from personal sources that when a certain mayor, not our current one, came into office he selectively cleaned out the civil service in the first week, costing our fair city something like eleven million dollars in severance settlements. This worked: it sent a powerful message to all civil servants that they had better work to be liked, not disliked, by this mayor.

One of the lessons of history is, those who do not follow it seem destined to repeat it. So, here we go. Rob Ford is trying to oust the TTC general manager, Gary Webster. This is a deduction, but articles in the Star clearly point out that five out of nine on a committee is enough to do this, and a certain five requested the meeting; one other committee member found out about the meeting through some back channel and will travel back in time on Tuesday, weather et cetera permitting.

Now it appears that other managers may also face the axe on Tuesday.

Gary Webster has quite a reputation as TTC general manager. He deserves better than this.

Apparently, being very good at your job is, once again, not good enough. You must also think like the leader, even if you have at your fingertips more facts than he does. Even if the mayor is pushing a plan that he apparently can’t fund, for some subways that apparently are not justified by current nor projected ridership, that short-changes Torontonians for what they could get from their (and Federal and Provincial) dollars – even in the face of one’s own conscience, one is supposed to agree with Mayor Rob Ford.

I am reminded of the Salem witch trials. You were supposed to go along with the church and the townspeople, and condemn your neighbours for being disagreeable and successful, or even just different. The church used its bully pulpit to solve conflict by removing unfortunates.

Rob Ford should make an effort to look much better, of much higher-mindedness, than this. I don’t expect this outcome, however. The War on the Car must continue.

Puzzle

Normally, when something is amiss in a Toronto Star puzzle, I just contact the author and let it go at that. However, in the last two days there have been at least three mistakes, assuming that I am seeing the paper correctly.

The Saturday chess problem, #1928, looked eerily familiar. Yep, it is. I remember the king trapped by his own bishop and the hostile knight at h1. It took me awhile to remember the solution (won’t spoil it here) but not nearly as long as the first time this puzzle was run. It’s fairly hard, imho. I am sure this is a duplicate of a puzzle a year or more ago.

The Saturday Challenger is a number puzzle. You are given four numbers in a four-by-four grid. You are also given the column totals, the row totals, and the diagonal totals. You are only allowed to place single digits 1 through 9 in the missing spaces, and the result should add up to the given totals. You are allowed to re-use digits (this isn’t like Kakuro).

In the Saturday February 18 version there is a column (2) with a given number of 6 and a total of 11. This means the largest possible number in this column is 3. (assume 1’s in the other missing spaces and the total is 11, eh?). There is also a row (2) with a given number of 3 and a total of 25. This means the smallest possible number in this row is 4. (assume 9’s in the other missing spaces and the total is 25, eh?)

Therefore where row 2 crosses column 2 you need a number at least as large as four and at least as small as 3. This is not possible.

Now for the Sunday February 19 Stickeler. (Sorry, Terry). I think what happened here is the opening sentence got corrupted. It reads, in my copy,

if X > 1, is the following true or false?

X |X|^3 < |x|^X

The claim is that the above relation is always true. However if X > 1 I can choose X = 4 and the left hand side becomes equal to 4^4 as does the right hand side. So they are equal, not unequal, in this specific case. Clearly for larger X the right hand side grows faster than the left.

If however the initial constraint were X < 1 then the claim might be correct.

What I find weird about this is the coincidence. Errors do occur in the chess column, but quite rarely. Errors do occur in Stickelers, but also quite rarely. I’ve never before seen an error in the Challenger (Linus Maurer) and I always do this puzzle.

Rather than laugh at the Star and its puzzle makers, to whom I owe a debt for some fun and intellectual stimulation, I ask a dumb question:

Was this set of puzzles rushed, due to staffing or other limitations, surrounding the holiday weekend? It doesn’t really matter, so that does qualify as a sort-of dumb question.

System

There is a joke that there are two kinds of people: those who divide people into two kinds, and those that don’t. I submit that there are two ways of looking at a system: as a sustainable one, or as one to be exploited.

Physical laws forbid energy or mass from being created from nothing, and ensure that the overall disorder of everything must increase. What this omits is the situation where there is something to be exploited. A system that is far from equilibrium can create order, can create energy, by exploiting that disequilibrium and in effect using some of its energy to do so.

A green plant sitting in sunlight can create sugar and oxygen, a definite source of energy. The disequilibrium comes from having a large nuclear reactor, the sun, pouring photons into chlorophyll molecules. The green plant exploits the sunlight with no thought for renew-ability. The herbivore eats the plant with similar aplomb, and may be eaten in turn by carnivores, scavengers, or bacteria. Nobody worries about where the energy comes from.

It is possible to put a snail and some algae inside a sealed test tube containing some water and air. It is possible for this micro-ecosystem to become stable: sunlight turned to plant turned to snail excrement turned to fertilizer; carbon dioxide returned to oxygen burned back to carbon dioxide. In this ultra-simplistic system, nothing gets lost: not a single atom of phosphorous, for example, can escape. The system does still need the sunlight to make up for losses and to power it overall.

I submit that a society should be run more like the sealed-in snail. The sunlight of civilization appears to be funding, so the society should know where it comes from and use it accordingly. It should not encourage snails to grow faster than the algae can keep up. It should not expect the algae to recover the phosphorous faster than the snails can process it and give it back.

Put it in real terms: the fees a society collects should reflect the lifetime costs of the reason for charging the fees. If development fees are not going to continue forever, they should not be used to support infrastructure – property taxes would make more sense. If tobacco taxes are not spent on health and related costs, the government risks being dependent on tobacco taxes to pay other bills. In this case the society can not afford to have people quit smoking – a ridiculous outcome.

The system of taxation we now have appears to be one of, tax whatever you can, as limited by lobbying, then, put all the money into a bucket and spend whatever your special interest groups are lobbying for. The potential for imbalance is obvious. What is less obvious is the potential to greatly benefit the few at the expense of the many: all that money collected without tying it directly to what it is going to pay for. All that money available to be spent on whatever those of influence think would be pleasant for them.

I submit that an economy is a system that can either be run as sustainable or not. If you have oil underground, you can treat that like sunlight – a free input that can be used to create wealth or energy or status. This works until the oil runs out or becomes unpopular due to arcane hazards such as climate change. (The continuing denial of climate change is a topic for another blog entry, eh?)

Another way to run an economy is to be blessed with the ability to levy the equivalent of a handling charge. Switzerland with its banks, Panama with its canal, Caribbean vacation destinations, are all examples of this. Money will come so long as the outside economy still is willing to pay the handling charge. These are all in some degree of doubt today: some of the lure of foreign bank accounts is diluting due to more (tax) disclosure; alternate shipping routes (northwest passage will be open during our lifetimes) and alternate products (more electronic, less physical) can lower the value of a canal between two oceans; a recession can cut down on the volume of tourists lining up to sprawl on a beach.

A very clever way to run an economy is to get all nations to agree to enforce your patents and copyrights. Then you can make your electronic device anywhere, under license, doing virtually none of the work except design and patenting. I put a pointer to a Noam Chomsky article in an earlier blog, see “A Planned Failure”. What Chomsky points out is that the off-shoring of jobs was always part of the plan, and the rich are still getting richer while the rest of North America is getting poorer.

The beauty of this system is that it can pump so much money out of the general population, until they are essentially all unemployed. If my tablet or phone or PC is made offshore, where does my purchase price go? A small part to the actual manufacturers, and a larger part to the patent holding company that contracted the tablet or phone or PC to be constructed. In short, a third goes offshore and two-thirds goes to the rich. Nothing goes to my neighbour, who may now be laid off.

The mistake in this selfish grab for the last of the wealth of the continent is in the perpetrators’ failure to do a complete, systems, analysis of their own lives. It will soon be necessary to live in a gated community (of your rich peers). It will soon be necessary to have your own militia. You may need your own generator to keep your building cool against global warming. If you need a good haircut, you may have to have your own barber on staff.

The rich still do live on the same planet as the rest of us. How will that work out when the majority have no funds, no homes, no futures, and nothing to lose?

The current system depends on the rich forever taking more from the poor. It depends on higher taxes for everyone but corporations and the rich. The latest push for austerity will be borne almost exclusively by the lower classes. None of this is sustainable.

Drones

Our neighbours to the south are trying to change the rules for their airspace. They are trying to get permission to fly drones anywhere they like. Apparently drones can currently only be flown in limited military areas.

A cynic could find several comfortless implications in this new direction.

  • Perhaps the Department of Defense doesn’t think the F35 will actually fly, and needs drones as a backup plan for shooting down hijacked airplanes.
  • Perhaps the DOD simply wants to use these cheaper, less-risky planes instead of piloted ones. Remember Kenneth R Israel’s law: People don’t mind losing unmanned aircraft.
  • Perhaps the USA needs drones for surveillance now, and later, for crowd control.
  • If drones can keep out illegal immigrants, their usefulness in other countries could make them attractive, and sell-able. Israel could use them to patrol border areas and sea lanes. Somali pirates might find themselves under attack. Perhaps the Iranian threat to close the straits of Hormuz could be monitored – or is it already?

Exactly how drones will co-exist in high density domestic flight paths remains to be seen. Since drones are remotely piloted, their pilots will not be at risk, but the general travelling public might think it is going to be.

I wonder if Stephen Harper will put in an order for a few of these. I wonder if they will be allowed to fly over Canada. I have a bad memory that US cruise missiles were tested in Canada, it being safer (for whom?) to do it here.

What to do? Write your congressman?

A Planned Failure

Noam Chomsky has begun a series of articles on the decline of the American way of life, and how that decline was deliberate and enriched the top 0.1%, as they planned it would.

Click here to read this first, provocative, article by one of our finest minds.