COVID 19 update

There’s a virus spreading around the world, and it actually scares me. Not many things scare me anymore. It’s not that I’m afraid of getting sick or even of dying. I’ve come to terms with my own mortality. This virus scares me because it is affecting even people who may never actually catch the virus, and in serious and life-changing ways, and no amount of preparation can distance us from it.

Ours is a culture that has moved into an age of excessive consumerism. People are living a lifestyle of perpetual debt in order to have the latest iPhone with the fastest data plan so that they can escape their real life for a few moments into the fantasy world of their choosing. I understand the appeal; I’ve long been a fan of role-playing video games since I got my Commodore Vic 20. Also, modern life can get messy and complicated. Some days it is good just to close those curtains on life and just follow the endless stream of entertainment; whether it’s chasing after invisible Pokemon characters or binge watching series on Netflix. Seriously, look at the stress everyone is under, worried that they may lose their job which means they won’t be able to pay the bills to keep that endless stream of fantasy world distractions coming, so they keep on going at a job they hate out of fear of losing it, then poof, their worst fear just happened! It literally just happened. Okay, so they get employment insurance, or the government gives them money to help them out, but suddenly they realize they don’t have any food and the toilet paper ran out. That day-to-day lifestyle left no room to stockpile a pantry, which would be considered a luxury in today’s ever-shrinking homes. So they go to the store, but guess what, some cunt bought up all of the toilet paper, and not just from this store, but from every store, so now they got to buy their toilet paper through these hoarders at greatly inflated prices. That money they’ll eventually get from the government is less than they used to earn, and the things they need just got more expensive. So then they learn they’d better stockpile on the things they can, and so does everybody else, putting even greater strain on a supply chain that’s already been slowed down due to the new social distancing and extraordinary sanitation measures that are taking place. Then consider some manufacturers turning their efforts to manufacturing much-needed medical supplies, and shortages start to appear in other places, then before you know it people are stock-piling women’s hair dye to sell at many times the cost for an excessive profit. But then I realize it gets even worse than that. Those people who are upset over the profiteers with their toilet paper and hair dye are the lucky ones, because for many people, that isn’t even going to matter when they have no food to eat.

People are going to lose their homes. People are going to be driven into homeless shelters. In those homeless shelters, this Covid 19 will continue to spread, they will catch it and maybe die. Other people at the brink will see this, and since their world of endless fantasy entertainment is about to end, they will be forced to come to terms with their real life. They will realize the system is going to fail them, and they could end up dying the worst death imaginable. Then they will see no other option than to turn on those of us who had the sense to keep money in the bank and food in the pantry, but to them we will look like the hoarders, which will embolden them; if not that, then the alcohol surely will, as the Beer Store and LCBO are still considered “Essential Services.” I’m already seeing the fractures forming. People getting into fights in lines at stores. People driving a little too recklessly. But the last thing we want is to end up in a hospital, because that’s going to be the place where the risk of contracting Covid-19 will be at its worst. That’s if you’re fortunate enough to even get the medical attention you may need.

As for me, my wife and I have both been laid off, but we’ll be okay. My web server is just a cheap little Raspberry Pi 3 connected to my home Internet, and I don’t spend my money on the fastest Internet or the latest trendy gadgets, finding my value in life by creating my own things. We keep food in our pantry, but we’ve always done this because I see how much of our food is imported and I understand the delicate balance that makes up international trade can too easily be upset creating disruptions. But you see, my own life is still a balance that exists in this system; no matter how much food I might stockpile, there is a law of diminishing returns in that the longer I might need a stockpile for, the less likely am I to return to a society as good as the one we have now. I’m not saying our current society is perfect. Far from it. I’m perfectly aware of the corruption of what we have now; however, I’m also aware that things have, on a whole, gotten better. Things can get a lot worse. At least in the current system, we’re free to stock food in a pantry. We’re also free not to. We’re free to choose what food we eat or stockpile; if some of us don’t like meat, we don’t have to eat meat. We can hold ourselves to religious beliefs that might prohibit us from eating certain foods, but that is still our freedom to choose that belief. Even if one argues rightly that it is our parents that choose our religion, we are mostly free to leave that religion if it becomes too abusive. These freedoms are only possible in a society such as ours. We need to continue to build it in the progression that makes things better for us all, leaving nobody behind.

At a time like this, I think the answer is clear. Each of us needs to be a little more selfless. To recognize that now isn’t the time to be getting rich or taking advantage of other people. To have a little more tolerance for how others are behaving. To let the economy have a vacation from us for a little while. At the end of the day, it’s just money, and that money is worthless in a society where luxuries like hair dye and toilet paper were the first to go.

Ending the commute

Today is a special day for me, for today marks the first day that I will no longer commute. This has been a goal of mine that I have been working towards for a while. For those of you unfamiliar with how bad commuting is for people who live where I live, I will explain.

The COMPASS camera system, so anyone can see how crappy this commute is up to the past 5 minutes

I live in the city of Oshawa, which is part of the Greater Toronto Area, located in Southern Ontario, Canada, along the north-west portion of Lake Ontario. For a long time, Highway 401 was the main arterial highway that linked all of the municipalities that make up the Greater Toronto Area, and in fact all of southwestern, central, and eastern Ontario. My city, Oshawa, is part of the Durham Region, which is home to many who commute into the City of Toronto. The reason for this is simple; Toronto is where all the good jobs are, but Durham Region is where the affordable housing exists. For the price of a tiny one bedroom condo in Toronto, one can find a three bedroom house with a yard, driveway, and no maintenance fees in the Durham Region. For those wishing to raise a family but also need a job that allows them to afford to raise a family, buying a house in the Durham Region and commuting to Toronto is the only solution.

Due to the incompetence of our elected officials, this concentration of good jobs in Toronto with the only affordable housing existing outside of the city, combined with a volatile job market that forces people to change employers every few years, Highway 401 is world class for the amount of traffic that it carries, and is often cited as the busiest highway in North America, as well as one of the busiest in the world. It’s no wonder that it’s also cited as being one of the most dangerous highways in Canada.

One of the solutions to this was to build a toll highway that would relieve the stress put on Highway 401. This toll highway is the 407 ETR. This highway was built with taxpayer money, and then sold by the Tory government (conservatives) in 1999 in order to “Balance the books.” Yes, isn’t it odd and extremely short-sighted for our government to sell something that could have been a positive revenue stream for many years to come? I suppose they make more than enough with their monopoly on unfair casino’s, lottery, and overpriced alcohol, and decided that greedy Spanish investors deserved to take a turn at screwing us. No wonder people mistrust the government.

My single largest monthly expense…until now.

I had been taking Highway 407 for my commute over the past year out of necessity. Some of my monthly 407 bills were in excess of $800. I wrote the people billing me a letter and phoned them, telling them that I felt the tolls were excessive for someone like me who relied on this highway every day. Their response was for me to use the highway “Strategically;” that is, to map out the sections of the 407 where the tolls are the most expensive, exit the highway at those points, take alternate side streets, and get back on where it gets less expensive. This hopping on and off the highway really defeats the purpose of a highway, which is to relieve wear and tear on our automobiles and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by allowing cars to operate at their most efficient. It also complicates my commute and increases the risk of an accident. Shortly thereafter, they announced that the rates were going up due to the fact that too many people are using the 407. That was it, I had had enough of participating in this game where the idle, greedy rich continue to screw over the working class. It was time for me to fire the 407 ETR.

I found a new job within 10 kilometers of my home. It pays a bit less, and the benefits aren’t as good, but I’ll actually come out ahead financially by not paying those greedy Spaniards their excessive toll rate on what I consider a criminal sale of what should rightfully be a public asset. I’ve talked to others who are taking the 407, and they’re currently planning similar lifestyle changes to kick this excessively tolled highway out of their lives. As for me, I’m never going back to that commute. It’s not healthy, and it’s not the way a human being is supposed to live. Remember, these excessive tolls are being paid for by after tax dollars, and we cannot write the expense off unless we ourselves are wealthy business owners. This means that, when comparing this cost to your hourly rate, take the average of 24% off your hourly rate to get a true cost to you. It’s oppressive, and we all should do whatever it takes to starve the greedy, idle rich, even if it means taking a bit of a pay cut.

The future of social networks

I have seen the future of social media, and I saw it by looking at the past. The social media of today is similar to e-mail of the days before the Internet; we have a few big players, completely incompatible with each other. Someone on Twitter can’t see updates by their Facebook using friends on their timeline, and vice versa. A person needs to be signed up to both services, and if they have a friend who’s still using Myspace, they’ll need to add that service as well. If you become dissatisfied with a service, leaving them means leaving all of your friends and family as well. To compare to e-mail, imagine if you had to sign up with a Yahoo! account to read e-mails from friends and family who use a Yahoo! e-mail account, forcing you to subscribe to Yahoo!, Outlook, GMail, and whatever else is out there. We wouldn’t stand for it with e-mail in the modern day, and now we don’t have to stand for it with our social networking, because services like Mastodon are going to change all that.

The concept behind Mastodon is that it is a social network that uses open standards. This means that anyone could create a Mastodon server. It also means that you don’t have to use Mastodon at all to participate with all your friends and family; you might prefer to use a plug-in for Nextcloud like Social. I now have two accounts on this federated social media; one is from my own server, @paul@cloud.pquirk.com which I created for experimental purposes (the plug-in is still very much in development), and the other is at a Mastodon server, @paul@mastodon.social, which will be my more mainstream account. Obviously, I’m a fan of owning my own server and not having someone trying to interpret my intentions as they decide if my posts fit with their rules and regulations, but for now this is a great start and a step in the right direction for social media.

How things look from my server, a bit sparse for now

I’d like to invite all my friends and family to join me in the future of social networking. I’ve abandoned Facebook, and am winding down my Twitter use as I migrate entirely over to this new federated platform. I invite you to as well, won’t you please join me? Click here to sign up to mastodon.social, which I believe is a great place to start for anyone.

Facebook is everywhere

Facebook is an interesting phenomenon whereas its users are not the customer, they are the product. What this means is they collect information about you and then sell that information to whoever wants to buy it. When it comes to their platform, I understand the information I post there will be sold as such. What I don’t agree with is the fact that they are keeping track of me in other places on the web that have nothing to do with Facebook; places that have to do with my employment and finances.

Years ago, when there were issues with running Javascript on certain web sites, I followed the advice of an article I read and installed NoScript in my Firefox browser. I had since then switched over to Chromium and then Chrome, but didn’t bother installing NoScript. I decided to switch back to Firefox when I switched back to Ubuntu, and decided to use its default browser for a while. Signing back into Firefox meant that NoScript was added for me. NoScript is an extension that, by default, does not allow any scripts to run, and then I get to choose which scripts can run on which sites. Since it had been a while since I switched back, most of the permissions on NoScript had to be set up for web sites to work.

Imagine my surprise when I went to my trade union web site to discover that one of the scripts it was trying to run was from facebook.net. Equally as disturbing was when I went to my online banking site with my credit union, the same script from facebook.net was also trying to run. This script was trying to run even after I logged into my sessions at these respective sites. I tagged this script as “Untrusted” at these sites, so it cannot run. These web sites continue to work perfectly fine without the script from facebook.net.

As far as I’m concerned, NoScript is a valuable add-on for anyone who wishes to browse the Internet under their own terms. Not only will it protect you from malicious scripts (assuming you don’t mark a malicious script as “Trusted,”) it also puts giant marketing creeps back in their place while I do my personal business free from their prying eyes.

Educate before you vaccinate

Recently in Toronto, a local anti-vaccine movement called “Vaccine choice Canada” bought billboard advertisements suggesting people “Educate before you vaccinate.” By and large, I support people educating themselves and generally mistrusting authoritarianism, but in this case, the “Education” they are advertising is misinformation and pseudoscience, ironically, from people who come from generations that have benefited the most from vaccinations. In the spirit of education, I will share my understanding of vaccines.

First, it’s important to understand what a vaccine is, and to understand the true nature of vaccines, it’s equally important to understand the nature of what vaccines are protecting against. Vaccines protect us against virus and disease by allowing our immune system to “Learn” how to protect us from virus and disease. By injecting ourselves with a sterilized and deactivated or severely weakened version of a virus, our immune system can develop antibodies that can attack and destroy the real version of that virus. Without a vaccine shot, a disease like smallpox can do a lot of damage in the time it takes our immune system to develop antibodies to defend against it. In the case of young children, the damage can be enough to kill them.

I can understand where the anti vaccine movement is coming from; our authoritarian government wants to be our drug dealer, glamorizes and profits from the sale of alcohol, and runs casinos and lotteries at a profit to them. There was a time when these things were illegal as those who governed us recognized the harm, so it’s no wonder that people rightfully see our government as self-serving at our expense and misery. However, when it comes to vaccines, we only need to study history to understand the collective benefit they offer. Before vaccines were widely available, couples would have a lot of children with the understanding that some of them would die from a horrible disease. Records are available to demonstrate the mortality rate of pre-vaccination children compared to today. A visit to local grave sites will demonstrate the number of child graves drops off significantly after vaccines were made widely available.

I think it’s important to consider the motivation of the anti-vax movement. We don’t have to dig too deep to discover that they make money by selling anti-vaccine books, selling supplements and vitamins in their “Wellness” store, and soliciting donations. There are also the “Alternative” health care providers that profit once they manage to convince you that conventional healthcare is harmful and therefore they are the solution to better health. If you actually believe these people sincerely want to help you, I suggest they only want to insincerely help themselves to your money when you do get sick and believe you have nowhere else to turn. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Click here to read more about this on vaxopedia.org.

Once we recognize the benefit vaccines offer us all, it becomes readily apparent why those self-serving individuals in power would want us peons to be vaccinated; if everybody in our society is vaccinated, they and their children are better protected, because the more people that are vaccinated, the less likely it is for a disease to affect you. This is important, because, over time, our immune system stops making antibodies for diseases it hasn’t had to deal with for a while. This is fine when something like smallpox has been eradicated, but when something else remains a threat, it’s necessary for us to get booster shots before potential exposure. Ultimately, the ideal goal for all of us is to see all disease eradicated, and currently the path to that goal is vaccinations. However, if you still think you don’t want to get your child vaccinated, I recommend keeping their name short, and don’t get too attached to that kid, because the current anti-vax movement has meant that some diseases are making a comeback.

My great aunt died at the age of 5 from disease, she did not have the benefit of free vaccinations.

GM Oshawa closure

With the closure of GM Oshawa’s plant in the news and the protests that are happening, I would like to take this opportunity to bring some sobriety to this situation with my own first hand experience and perspective.

Me and my truck visiting the place where it was built.
Me and my truck visiting the plant where it was built.

I was hired by General Motors in 2002 when they had to hire around 600 new employees for a new third shift at Oshawa’s truck plant. The third shift was necessary because the trucks were selling very well, due to the fact that Canadian built trucks were of great quality and the appeal of a rugged truck built in a rugged country by rugged but friendly hard working people was great to the kind of person who would buy a truck. Things were going great until 2008, when we knew that the Buick and Pontiac were going to be done and no new product was on the horizon. We knew the plant couldn’t survive on just the Impala and Monte Carlo, so when GM said there would be no new products for Oshawa unless we agreed to a shelf agreement with concessions, we all thought that was a pretty good idea, so we voted in favour for that, which, among other things, allowed GM to hire people on a temporary full time basis, created a two tier system where new employees would never make more than $25 per hour, and froze the wages of current employees. GM rewarded us with the Camaro, which the guys from Sainte-Thérèse referred to as the “Kiss of death,” as their plant was shut down shortly after they got the Camaro. This announcement came at a time shortly after the price of crude oil was peaking at $160 per barrel; gas prices were on their way up to prices never seen before, so the whole idea seemed like something thought up by a demented idiot. A week later, GM announced they were shutting down the truck plant and moving it to Mexico.

Price of crude oil throughout 2008, generated at macrotrends.net.

GM had negotiated in bad faith. Jobs were going to be lost, there would be no way Camaro production would replace two trucks, the Pontiac, and the Buick. The CAW protested and threatened General Motors with legal action, but eventually they settled out of court on a plan called Voluntary Termination of Employment Program, or VTEP (GM loves its acronyms). Anyone who volunteered to terminate employment with GM would get a $35,000 car voucher, cash, and the balance of their pension either left with GM or they could take it out and have their own financial institution manage it. The cash buyout was very generous; someone with only a year’s seniority would get around $35,000, and that amount went up with seniority, up until 10 years, where it levelled out close to $100,000. A person within 3 years of retiring could also get the new car voucher, but instead of a cash buyout, they would get paid to stay at home until they were eligible for their pension. To me, GM was saying there was no future for us younger guys in the plant, so here’s some money and a new car to give you a good start in whatever career you might choose. I was told we would never see anything like this again. I chose to leave GM to go into an electrical apprenticeship and joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

My reflection in a window at the Women’s College new build

It turned out that the kind of people who buy trucks don’t like buying trucks that are made in Mexico, or anywhere else but the good old US of A, or Canada. Sales plummeted as anyone but a demented idiot would have predicted. GM scrambled to move truck operations to Fort Wayne, Texas, but could not get everything complete in time, and so they had to ship partially made trucks to Oshawa where they would be finished. I and other electricians from the IBEW were called in, along with other union trades, to get the line in and complete by a very aggressive deadline. We were working 10 hour days, 6-7 days a week to meet this deadline. The word from the very beginning was that this line was only going to stay in Oshawa for 18 months, after which it was going to be moved to Fort Wayne. The truth of this was reinforced with the fact that all of the equipment was designed to run on American 480 volts, so we had to put in step-down transformers to make it compatible with Canadian 600 volt power. When I went to the parts of the plant where I used to work, it was completely gutted. There was no way a plant that size was going to survive on the few Cadillacs and Impalas that were rolling along a single line; things were definitely winding down.

Stickers on my hard hat from GM 2017
My hardhat from putting in the truck line for GM Oshawa in 2017.

So, why did General Motors want to shut down operations in Oshawa? It’s not the workers or the union; they are very hard working, and there’s not many of them left, and those that are still there are underpaid for the work they do as many fall under the lower pay scale of the shelf agreement, and the 10+ year freeze has let inflation eat away at the income of those senior workers in the higher tier. It’s not because the plant is outdated; we put in the latest manufacturing equipment in that new truck line in 2017. The most accurate reason I’ve heard was that GM felt they were spending too much money on electricity. They have a direct line to the Pickering nuclear power station, and use a tremendous amount of electricity. I had heard that they wanted to start their own co-gen power station in Oshawa, but their application was denied, and the cuts and closures started. This is reinforced by the fact that they are going ahead with a 6.4 megawatt co-generation plant in St. Catherine’s, which they have no plans on closing. I think we don’t hear much about this reason because OPG is a sacred cow in this part of the country, but we really ought to have this conversation because the workers losing their jobs deserve a lot more respect than they’ve been getting, and GM, for all their bad moves and decisions, can’t be expected to continue to pay a premium for some of the most expensive electricity in the world.