Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Autobiographical Notes, Part 2

Adriene, me and the foundation of our house, Spring 1982

If you missed the first part of this series, have a look at it here.

When I returned home after dropping out of University in the fall of 1973 Dad said I had to get a job and start paying room and board and helping him around the farm as well.

I got a job working for one of the neighbours who grew potatoes. During the harvest I drove truck (poorly) and following that I did a pretty good job of shoveling potatoes onto to one end of a grading machine and stacking the 75 pound bags of potatoes that came off the other end.

Mr. Anderson, my high school principal dropped by one day during the potato harvest to ask what had happened with university and what my plans were. He wasn't too impressed when I said I planned to help dad on the farm and wanted to know if there was anything else I was interested in. I said I would like to be an electrician. As it happened, he had connections with Ontario Hydro, the provincial power utility, and got me a meeting with the personnel guy at Hydro's Barrie regional office. I put in applications for operator and electrician, had an interview for the electrician job a few months later and actually got the job.

I thanked Mr. Anderson the next time I saw him—his help made a major difference in my life.

I started my apprenticeship with the Electrical Maintenance crew in Barrie on April 28, 1974. We worked on electrical equipment in generating, transformer and distribution stations—generators, transformers, switches, circuit breakers, batteries and battery chargers and the control systems for this equipment. A lot of this equipment was so large that the work was more mechanical than electrical. Because of the amount of insulating oil and compressed air involved, we did a lot of pipe fitting. Building and tearing apart wooden crates for shipping equipment required basic carpentry skills. It was a kind of "jack of all trades" trade, which suited me. My favourite part was trouble shooting control systems and electronics.

This job led me to rub elbows occasionally with engineers and gave me a much better idea of what an engineer really does. I soon concluded that I would be much happier as an electrician than I would have been as an engineer. At the same time, I was always interested in the more technical aspects of the trade.

In the fall on 1975 I got a room in Barrie to avoid the winter driving between there and Honeywood, which could be pretty nasty. Living by myself was not my favourite thing but fortunately the library was only a block away from my room and I was involved with the Baha'is in Barrie as well.

With both mom and grandma busy in the kitchen at home I'd had very little chance to cook for myself, but I soon learned, and both mom and grandma were glad to offer advice. I learned to make chili con carne, something that was not part of the rural southern Ontario food culture, and soon showed mom how to make it.

The crew a Barrie were good guys and taught me a lot. Working in a closed union shop at Ontario Hydro also affected my politics and showed me why unions really are necessary.

In the later grades of high school I had become something of a libertarian. That is, an anarchist but with little concern for the welfare of others, based on the idea that I'd always be able to take care of myself and so should everybody else. I probably picked this up from reading too much of Heinlein's science fiction, especially his book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Then becoming a Baha'i moved me firmly into the counterculture, making me what I would now call a "Crunchy", but even back then I was not comfortable with "woo"—stuff that is not supported by the scientific consensus. And unfortunately most of the Baha'is I met seemed to subscribe to rather a lot of woo. But the Baha'i faith did give my more sympathy and concern for my fellow man, leading my eventually to being what I would now call an anarcho-communist rather than a libertarian.

I had always enjoyed drawing and in the last couple of years of high school I took up landscape painting. In the fall of 1974 I signed up for a course in sculpture at Georgian Collage in Barrie. Only got a C, but it was a good exposure to many different techniques.

I spent the Victoria Day weekend in May 1975 with my friend Owen, canoeing in Algonquin Park.

It was the practice to move apprentices around to different location to expose them to different work and a wider variety of types of equipment. In August of 1975 I was moved to the Electrical Mtce. crew in Hanover. They were a different bunch and working there was not a particularly good time for me. The District Foreman was an old fellow with heart problems who was frequently off sick. The journeyman who was usually stepped up to fill his position was one of those guys who aren't really suited to managing people, which is hard enough even if you're good at it.

Thanksgiving weekend 1975 I camped out by myself in Algonquin Park, and did some landscape painting of the brilliant fall colours.

For the first few months in Hanover I boarded with another Hydro worker (not one of the guys I was working with). Early in the winter of 1976 I rented an apartment in Hanover. I was back to cooking for myself again and I took up bread baking, with pointers from my grandmother (don't use milk in bread, among other things). She also explained why she didn't like whole wheat bread—when she was little it was her job to crank the grain mill to make flour. Her family ate whole grain bread made from that flour, while those who were better off got store bought white bread.

In the fall of 1976, though still working at Hanover, I moved to Kincardine. This move was to support the Baha'is in Kincardine, who needed another body to make up the nine required for their Local Spiritual Assembly. I moved in with a family of Baha'is, since housing was hard to find in Kincardine at the time due to the influx of construction workers building the Bruce Nuclear Power Development.

The lady of the house had a younger sister named Carolynn. I started dating her and in a matter of a few weeks we were engaged. A lot of people thought this was way too quick and told us it would never last, but 40 years later we are still together. If I don't do anything too stupid I expect we'll be together for quite a while longer yet. Fortunately, after forty years with me Carolynn has quite a high tolerance for stupid stuff. And after forty years with her I am starting to smarten up a bit.

Driving from Kincardine to Hanover every day that winter was pretty brutal—as luck would have it, the winter of 1976/77 was one of the worst I've ever seen. So I requested a transfer to the Electrical Mtce. crew at Bruce. There was a fellow there who wanted to go to Hanover, and in June of 1977 we changed places. This was the start of my career at the Bruce, the largest nuclear power development in the world, where I spent the rest of my time with Ontario Hydro.

At the start of that time, I was not too keen on nuclear power—part of my crunchiness, I guess. But as I learned more about it, my opinion changed.

In the early summer of 1977 I moved from Kincardine to a rental mobile home in Tiverton, a small village a few miles north of Kincardine—much closer to farm where Carolynn lived with her parents. Carolynn and I were married in August of 1977. Her father lent us his motor home for our honeymoon and we drove around southern Ontario, as far east as Ottawa and back through Algonquin Park.

On the way back we stopped at a book store in Barrie and I picked up some books, including The Limits to Growth, and Small is Beautiful. Small Is Beautiful made a lasting impression on me and affected my political, economic and business management thinking for the rest of my life. The Limits To Growth made less of a positive impression—being a technical guy, I was sure there would be a technological solution. In the 70s and 80s, I was reading a lot about solving our resource and energy problems off planet—orbiting solar power stations, asteroid mining and so forth.

I don't think I even finished reading The Limits to Growth on my initial encounter with it. It was well into the current century before I returned to that book with a more realistic idea of what technology can do. In the meantime, we settled down to living, and attempting to prosper in the "business as usual" world.

I had never really enjoyed living alone, so I found married life suited me well.

The trailer we were renting was on a big lot and I got a nearby farmer to plow the backyard. I bought a nice rear-tine rototiller and planted a big garden in the spring of 1978.

Also In the spring of 1978 I finished my apprenticeship, passed my final exam and became a journeyman "Power Maintenance Electrician".

In the spring of 1979 we moved to a rental house in the south end of Tiverton and planted a small garden in the backyard there. We were renting from a farmer and I arranged to plant a much larger garden in a corner of a field of his just south of town in 1980 and 1981.

Our daughter, Adriene, was born in the Kincardine hospital in the middle of a blizzard in January of 1980.

The thing about living in Tiverton was that rarely a day went by when we didn't have to drive to Kincardine, so we decided to move there. In the summer of 1981 we bought a building lot in Kincardine.

In the fall of 1981 I left the Baha'i Faith. The immediate cause was a squabble over my correcting another Baha'i on a minor issue of grammar/semantics. But I had been growing less satisfied with the Faith for some time, and this was just the straw that broke the camel's back. When the dust settled, so to speak, I was an atheist again and I still am.

Baha'is aren't supposed to drink alcohol or use mind altering drugs (except coffee) and I still don't. Living in Bruce County, where the use of alcohol is a key part of the local culture, I've taken a lot of flack for this, but I've no intention of changing. The Baha'i Faith also left me with an abiding distrust of hierarchy and patriarchy in particular, and an aversion to statements of absolute truth. Sometime not too long after this I came up with the smart-ass quip, "truth is what other people want you to believe." As time goes by, I think there is more to that than I originally though. Years later, after reading Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell", I absorbed his idea that what most people believe in is belief itself—that belief is a good thing. But I don't think it is.

I had had some limited exposure to computers in high school and university, but "personal computers" were exploding onto the scene in the early 80s. I bought a "pocket computer" from Radio Shack with a single line LCD display that allowed you to program it in BASIC. We also got a computer at work and I did some BASIC programming on it as well.

In the summer of 1982 I bought a Radio Shack Color Computer, and a program cartridge that allowed me to do assembly language programming. I had a lot of fun learning 6809 assembly language, writing a text editor, a compiler for a Forth-like language, and some programs to control a robot I was building.

In 1982 we built a house on that lot in Kincardine, doing all the work ourselves except for the foundation, the installation of the electric furnace and ductwork, putting up the drywall board and some of the flooring. Carolynn was my extremely valuable right hand man, and we had help from my parents, all three of Carolynn's brothers and several local youths. In December of 82 we moved in. It was by no means finished and I spent a lot of time during the next few years finishing drywall, installing flooring, doors and trim, and building the kitchen cabinets. Carolynn did most of the painting. In the course of building that house Carolynn and I learned a lot about working together. It was a stressful experience from time to time and we've often said if we could get through that, we could get through anything.

In 1982 the "energy crises" in 1973 and 1979 were still on my mind, so we built a house with lots of insulation and south facing windows. Sadly, the lot was quite small and for many years I didn't think there was room for a garden and didn't do any gardening.

Ontario Hydro had sent me on a course on electronics in 1981. I was invited to come back and teach the course to apprentices and in January 1983 I sat in on an apprentice electronics course and did some of the teaching. Over the next few years I taught two of those two week courses each year, usually one in the fall and one in the winter, and later on taught the somewhat more advanced 3 week journeyman electronics course as well. All this took place at Ontario Hydro's Conference and Development Centre in the Hockley Valley, near Orangeville. That meant that I was away from home during the week while teaching. Being left at home with our small children was rather tough on Carolynn but, as always, she was a real trooper and managed very well.

Teaching added some welcome variety and new learning experiences to my career. I had been a journeyman for six years by 1983 and was feeling somewhat discontented. There was also some conflict with some of the crew members at Bruce who were adept at pushing my buttons just for laughs. Thinking back, I had had good people skills in high school, so it puzzles me why that ever became a problem, but it did. Eventually I learned to let it all roll off my back and teaching gave me some added confidence that helped. Eventually we all learned to get along, and it seemed to me that the other guys had changed more than I had.

For the first couple of years the electronics course consisted of my presenting the main content of the course in a series of lectures, some hands on projects and then troubleshooting the battery chargers we had in the classroom. But the training department had a mandate to switch everything over to "self paced learning", and that required writing down what we'd been lecturing. So myself and the other guy who'd be teaching the course did just that.

By this time computers had come far enough to run word processors, and fortunately I'd taken typing back in grade 9. I spent a few of months sitting at a computer, writing down what I'd been saying up at the front of the classroom. This was my first experience with writing professionally and of course it included being edited. This no doubt improved my writing while wearing some corners off my ego.

Once the text of the course was ready, I got involved in typesetting the manual, using Pagemaker on a Mac and drawing some of the illustrations using something called Cricket Draw, again on a Mac.

My grandmother passed away at age 97 early in the summer of 1983.

Michael-John, our first son, was born in August of 1983, and Daniel, our second son born in winter of 1986.

Some of the engineering people in our part of Ontario Hydro (Georgian Bay Region) wrote a timesheet entry and management information program called "CALMIS" (Computer Aided Local Management Information System) in the mid 80s. This originally ran on the Radio Shack TRS80 computers, but was soon moved over to the IBM PC. Initially only the timesheet entry part of the system was ported and then I was offered the opportunity to move the rest of the system over to the IBM and do maintenance programming on the system until the mid 90s when our part of Hydro switched over to an entirely different system. The system was written in Fortran, which was the programming language that the engineers were familiar with. I untangled their spaghetti code and turned the system into something that was more structured and fairly easy to maintain.

We bought our first proper stereo system in early 1987, with a CD player, and I started collecting CDs. My musical interests were mainly classical, and I soon found that I especially enjoyed strings (violin, viola, cello) and chamber music.

A group call Chamber Music Kincardine (CMK) had started in Kincardine, bringing world class chamber music groups to perform in Kincardine, with the help of some grants from the Ontario Arts Council. We started attended the concerts and I got involved as publicity director in the fall of 1988.

I bought a violin at a pawn shop in Toronto late in 1988 and started lessons in early 1989. I had a good ear for pitch , but almost no sense of rhythm or timing. My sons started playing violin not long after that, as soon as they were big enough to hold a 1/8 size. For the first while, I taught them myself.

My parents sold the farm and moved to Orangeville in 1988.

In 1989 our union steward got another job and I volunteered to replace him.

In the spring of 1990 we bought a new computer, a PC clone laptop, and I started 8086 assembly language programming, as well as word processing and desktop publishing. For a couple of years after that, CMK's promotional posters were done on that little computer and a dot matrix printer.

In 1990 and 1991 I went to went to the summer music camp in Southampton with my son Michael.

1992 was a busy year.

We got our first desktop computer, a proper desktop PC clone with a 486 process, a big Canon inkjet printer that could print on up to 11X17 paper and a scanner. This equipment was the basis of C&I Graphics, the desktop publishing/printing company that we started.

The summer music festival in Southampton didn't happen that year, so a group of us got together and started the Kincardine Summer Music Festival, which is still running 26 years later, though I haven't been involved since 2002.

In the spring of 92 of the two crew foreman at work got job elsewhere in Ontario Hydro. The other crew foreman encouraged me to apply for the job, mainly to prevent one of the other possible candidates from getting it. I agreed that his getting the job would not be a good outcome and so, in self defense, I applied for and got the job in the fall of 1992.

Both myself and that other guy were sent on a course called "Developing Potential Supervisors" before the interviewing for the job started. I found this very helpful, both in the interview and when I had to actually start being a supervisor.

This marked the end of my teaching the electronics course, the end of my time as Union Steward and the start of a new era in my career with Ontario Hydro. As such, this is probably a good place to stop for this time. Next time I'll bring this story of my life up to date.

Monday, 2 April 2018

What I've Been Reading, March 2018


This note used to say that the links appear in the order I read them and was meant imply that they were more or less random in their subject matter, other than being of interest to me. Recently I started a few new sections at the bottom of the links on subjects that are of particular interest to me. But I can see that as time passes I am moving to a greater degree of "curation", which the dictionary tell me is about organizing and maintaining a collection. Applied to this collection of links and books I guess this will mean selecting links less randomly and trying to make them relevant in the context of this blog and whatever is going on in the world during the month.

Poverty, Housing, Homelessness

Last month I listed a link to an article that maintained poverty is the main cause of homelessness, so I've expended the scope of this section, and rolled minimum wage issues in with it.

  • Exposing the great 'poverty reduction' lie, by Jason Hickel, Aljazeera
    "The UN claims that its Millennium Development Campaign has reduced poverty globally, but some measures show it is worse."
  • Survivors, by Brigid Hains, Aeon.
    "Filthy and violent it may be, but life is still precious for the world's street children. Can you look them in the eye?"
  • $15 minimum wage or a tax cut: what are the trade-offs? by Sheila Block, Behind the Numbers.
  • Thousands of Working New Yorkers Are Living in Homeless Shelters, by Jacquelyn Simone, Coalition for the Homeless
    "Rents surged nearly 20% in real dollars from 2000 to 2014, while household income decreased by 6.3%. The number of people living in New York City shelters skyrocketed to more than 60,000 late last year, up from 31,009 in 2002. The rise in the working homeless is a big reason why."
  • L.A. homeless crisis grows despite political promises, many speeches and millions of dollars. How do we fix this? by Steve Lopez, LA Times
    "Beginning at Central Avenue and heading west, I counted 16 tents on the south side of 5th Street. My longtime traveling companion, Times photographer Francine Orr, counted 15 tents on the north side of the street.
    "One block, 31 tents.
    "On skid row, this is the norm, and it has been for years. On a recent day, it was not possible to walk on the sidewalk in the one-block stretch of 6th Street between San Julian and Wall streets. Rows of tents and blue tarp shanties lined the entire stretch, extending all the way to the curb, so you had to walk in the street."

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico after the hurricane is a present day example of what we can expect to see someday soon in many areas experiencing collapse, though the future will no doubt see even less recovery funding from the mainland.

One would hope the recovery would aim for resilience and sustainability, but that doesn't seem to be the way it is going. And beyond that, I don't hear anyone talking about preparing for the next storm. The reality of climate change is that there will surely be another storm and probably in the near future. it would be a shame if all the recovery work that is being done was wiped out during the next hurricane season.

Intelligence and IQ Testing

Autonomous Vehicles



  • Ecko Rising, by Daniel Ware
    First in a three part series, but I don't think I'll read the other two.
  • The Corporation Wars: Emergence, by Ken Macleod
    Third and final book in an excellent trilogy.
  • Dark State, by Charles Stross
    Second in a trilogy which is a continuation of a series of six books. But he keeps me coming back for more. A real cliff hanger at the end of this one and the next book isn't coming out until January 2019.


And to round out this month, here are some gems from my bookshelf:

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Autobiographical Notes, Part 1

Dad and me, June 1958

I've been writing this blog for the last six years and for most of that time there has been nothing here about me other than my name and a photo. A couple of years ago I added an ”About Me" section that was only a few paragraphs long, and didn't go into much detail. I've long held that nurture is at least as important than nature, if not more so. I guess it stands to reason that a little more about my history might be interesting to those who may be wondering how I came to think the way I do.

So, what follows is a more complete autobiography.

My name is Irv Mills and I live in Kincardine, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada.

My parents got married late in their lives. That was in 1951 and by the time I was born in 1954, Mom was 35 and Dad was 44. I've noticed changes in my outlook as I've aged over the years since my children were born and I suspect that my folks we probably not a typical young couple when they had me, and five years later, my sister.

The story goes that they were standing together outside the nursery in the hospital, looking through the glass at me, and Dad asked, "Do you think we can raise him?" I don't recall what Mom was supposed to have said, but having been in Dad's position myself, I can certainly sympathize with him.

I was born in the hospital in Shelburne, Ontario and grew up on a farm about 15 miles north of there, half a mile south of the little hamlet of Honeywood. This is only about 70 miles north of Toronto, which is certainly a cosmopolitan citys, but Honeywood was, and still is, a long way out in the boonies.

Rural electrification, which the company I used to work for (Ontario Hydro) was justifiably proud of, didn't happen on the township road where I grew up until the mid 1940s, only about 10 years before I was born. Dad had always farmed with horses, one of his great loves. After they were married Mom insisted (to hear her tell it, anyway) that he get a tractor. But don't be mistaken, Dad was all for progress and made it clear to me that the "good old days" were anything but. Powered machinery and electricity made farming not just easier, but safer in many ways.

One of the benefits of growing up on the farm was that I got to go to work with my Dad quite often, especially before I started school. Part of that was to give Mom a break and let her get something done other than taking care of me.

I suspect I was about 15 months old when she asked Dad to take me with him one day. He was in the middle of the spring planting, driving our seed drill up and down a field planting grain. This machine was still horse drawn and it took three horses, our two and one borrowed from one of my uncles. There was a board along the back of the seed drill, a few inches above ground level that you stood on with the lines from the team of horses in your hands to steer them. I was too small to stand beside him on the board, so Dad set me on top of the machine, on the lid of one of the bins full of seed grain and steadied me with one hand while driving the horses with the other.

For some reason this became a ritual that I took part in every spring-- even when I was a teenager and we weren't getting along too well. After I finished school and left home to go to work, if Dad was planting and I was home, I'd go for a ride with him. I have a memory (probably from when I was a year or two older than 15 months) of sitting on the seed drill worrying about what would happen if I fell forward under the machine. But I didn't, and soon I was old enough to stand beside Dad, which was safer and more fun. There are people these days who would like to stop kids from working with their parents on farms, but I don't agree. I'd say this is a privilege that farm kids enjoy and city kids miss out on. When my own children came along, I let them ride on their grandfather's knee on the tractor and in front of him on the back of a horse.

The old farm house wasn't in the best of shape and while it did have electricity, it didn't have indoor plumbing. So in the summer of 1956 we built a new house, and the following year Dad and his brothers tore down the old farm house which had been there since sometime in the latter half of the 1800s. I was there "helping" them and learned some new and very expressive words of which Mom did not approve. The lumber from the old house was stored away in a vacant building that Dad called the "sheep pen". Over the next thirty years this was used for various projects around the farm, and was available when I needed wood for whatever I was working on as well.

Possibly from watching all this activity with people using tools, I developed a love of tools very early in my life and by the time I was eight had a hammer, hand saw, axe, shovel and wheelbarrow of my own. Later I got an electric drill, a soldering gun, a multimeter and an assortment of pliers and screw drivers.

We were not rich by any means--barely middle class, I would say--but there was always food on the table, and I had enough clothes to wear. And there were always presents for my birthday and Christmas. In addition to tools, I liked sets of building blocks and science related stuff. When I was somewhat older I was given a chemistry set, a microscope and an electric motor kit.

Mom's mom lived with us when she wasn't staying with Mom's older brother in Alberta, and full time from the early 1960s on. When I was about 5 years old, she bought us a TV so that she could watch hockey on Saturday nights. We had a 50 foot antenna tower and, at the start, got just one channel, the CBC station in Barrie, about 35 miles to the east of us. I remember watching the Walt Disney show every Sunday night and being especially impressed with Davey Crockett.

There was also a science show on CBC called "The Nature of Things". According to Wikipedia, the first host was Donald Ivey, with Patterson Hume co-hosting many episodes. All I can remember is there were two guys talking about science, which I found extremely interesting. And they explained it well enough that it was not hard to follow.

Although she was 75 years old in 1960, Grandma took charge of our half acre garden. She also looked after me so Mom could help Dad with the farm work, and told me about her life and how things were done in the old days. But, like Dad, she never called them the good old days.

Mom read to me at bedtime when I was little, until I started reading to myself. One time she went on a bus trip with the local Women's Institute and came back with a copy of "Swiss Family Robinson", which she read to me. This book was full of people making things for themselves and very much caught my imagination.

Living where we did, there weren't a lot of other kids around to play with. The nearest, my friend Brian Baker, lived about three quarters of a mile down the road from us. We got together for play dates occassionally before starting school and were friends until he dropped out of school and went to work after grade 11. I have always pretty good at amusing myself and prefer having a few close friends to having a larger circle of more casual acquaintances.

Where I grew up little kids wandered around on their own whenever we felt like it and weren't seen as being in any sort of danger. Mom would send me outside and say down come back until suppertime. I had the whole farm to play in and sometimes went farther afield.

I started elementary school in the fall of 1960, at the school in Honeywood, a half mile walk from home (and not uphill in both directions). That was Grade One--there was no kindergarten. Most schools in the area were still of the one room type, but ours had a total of 4 rooms and included both elementary and high school. By the time I was in grade 4, the high school part was shut down and the older kids bussed to the high school in Shelburne.

When I was in Grade One I was in a room with Grades One to Four, and a total of 13 children. I always found these multi-grade rooms good, as you could listen when the teacher was instructing the older grades rather than being bored with whatever your where supposed to be doing at your own grade level.

At some point during my first week or two of school I was given a sheet of colouring to do. Now I had never had a colouring book before and staying inside the lines was a new concept for me. The teacher was less than impressed. I had encounter a blank sheet of paper before, though, and when given one I was able to draw quite well. I eventually got better at colouring, but throughout my life I've done better when winging it than when required to stay inside the lines--just no respect at all for arbitrary rules.

There was an arena with a skating rink in Honeywood, and every Friday afternoon we walked there from the school and had an hour or so of skating. I enjoyed skating, though I had, very little interest in hockey.

When the high school moved out of the school in Honeywood, the room I'd been in during the first three grades was converted into a library. There was even one or two science fiction books in it. I remember reading Les del Rey's Step to the Stars, about the building of the first space station, by lantern light during the big blackout in 1965.

Once a month, a trunk full of books would arrive at the school and I remember finding more science fiction in it on a couple of occasions, such as Del Rey's Outpost of Jupiter and Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky.

In Grade 2 we actually had science as a subject, with a science textbook that made a big impression on me.

During my first few years in school, the space race was heating up, culminating with the first moon landing the summer of 1969, when I was between grades 9 and 10. This made the science fiction I was reading seem pretty plausible and further stoked my interest in science and technology.

For the first few grades my teacher was dear old Mrs. MacLean who was very nice and especially good with the younger children. But then we switched over to Mrs. Rutledge who was anything but nice. I have since realized, though, that it was under her ungentle tutelage that I was forced to master spelling and arithmetic, skills that have surely come in handy since then.

Mom's brother was in the Signals Corps during WW II and Mom had help him study electricity and electronics. She got me interested in those subjects, which involved much experimentation and lots of blown fuses. To reduce the amount of smoke Mom got me subscriptions to Elementary Electronics and Popular Electronics.

Mom was also interested in history and geography and I picked up on that. She had a globe and one Christmas when I was pretty young I asked for and received an atlas. I still love maps and when I was in high school I did pretty well at orienteering even though I wasn't a great runner--just really good at finding my way around.

There were a number of historical fiction books in the public school library written to appeal to boys, usually involving some young fellow caught up in famous historical events. There were also some non-fiction book that I really enjoyed. I brought Thor Heyerdahl's Kontiki Expedition home when I was in grade 5 or 6, and stayed up half the night reading it.

Politics was a popular topic of discussion in my family and we were a fairly left wing bunch. Mom had grown up in a coal mining town in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and her father had been a miner. Both she and her mother were very much in favour of unions and not frightened by the ideas of communism. She had a couple of books which she read to me: Peoples of the USSR, a kind of propaganda-ish look at the native peoples of each of the Soviet Republics, and "Behind the Urals", a story about a welder from the USA who went to Russia in the 1930s and worked in Magnitigorsk, where Russia was struggling to set up its iron and steel industry.

Many farmers in Ontario are quite conservative and support the Conservative party, but not Dad. His political opinions fit in pretty well with Mom's.

My Dad's family were Anglicans. Mom had gone to the United Church of Canada before moving to Ontario but switched to the Anglican Church after getting married. Grandma's Dad had been a Mormon and that had somewhat, turned her away from religion. But none of us were seriously religious and we rarely went to church. I was sent to Sunday school but by the time I was 9 declared myself officially an atheist.

I think it was in 1965 (Grade 6) that several of the one room schools in our township where closed and their students started to be bused to our school in Honeywood. That was when I met my friend Johnny Power.

I started high school in the fall of 1968, at Center Dufferin District High School in Shelburne. This gave me access to a larger library, more advanced science classes and shop class. Skills I picked up in shop class made a big difference when I later became an apprentice electrician.

For the first couple of years that I was in high school, a semi-trailer full of books for sale would show up every so often. I remember picking up books like Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Frank Herbert's Dune and Samuel R. Delany's Nova. There was some science fiction in the high school library as well. I particularly remembers Asimov's Foundation series and I, Robot, Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End, and John Wyndham's Day of the Triffyds.

I had subscriptions to several science fiction magazines, including Fantastic Stories and Amazing Stories, which later change its name to Analog Scienice Ficiton/Science Fact.

I also read quite a few science books including, Asimov's New Intelligent Man's Guide to Science and Arthur Clarke's Promise of Space. I developed a real love for reading about science, the kind of stuff that I imagine many people find pretty dry.

This was long before the internet or even personal computers, and the only way to study up on a subject was books and magazines. Living where I did, a chance to go to a book store or a news stand was a rare treat. Being interested in the latest technological developments could be quite frustrating because it was so hard to find up to date reading material.

Part way through high school I became friends with Owen Atkinson, who lived on a farm just a few miles west of Honeywood. In the spring of 1972 he introduced me to the Baha'i Faith and I shortly became a member of that religion.

In the summer of 1972, my friend Johnnie Power was killed in a car accident. An event that left a lasting mark on me.

In Ontario at that time high school went all the way up to Grade 13 instead of just Grade 12 which is common most everywhere else. That extra year was necessary if you planned to go to university, which I did. I graduated from Grade 13 in 1973 and was accepted into the Engineering Science program at the University of Toronto. I had done very well in our small high school, but after 2 weeks I dropped out of university and came home. I could say it was the culture shock of moving from the farm to downtown Toronto. But it would be closer to the truth to say that the first year programs at U of T were intended to weed out the weaker students, and that worked quite effectively on me.

Well, this seems like a good point to stop for now. Next time, I'll cover another chunk of my life.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Six Years of Blogging

Shortly after the new year I realized that I've been writing this blog for 6 years now.

I have published over 75 posts and a lot of them are in long series. If you happen to discover this blog in the middle of one of those, it may be difficult to find you way back to the start of the series, or to find out what else is here that might interest you. So I took the time to create a site map, which is live on the blog now, and can be accessed via the link at the right end of the row of links near the top of the page, just under the orange rectangle with the title and tag line. I've also started to put a list of links to all the other posts in a series at the bottom of each post in the series--this should be all done in the next few weeks.

In the process of setting up the site map I got a little distracted and stopped to read some of the earlier posts that I hadn't looked at in a while. I wasn't expecting to be very impressed with that early work, but actually I find myself quite happy with it and would change very little if I had it over to do again.But to judge from the number of page views for posts before 2016, only a very few people have bothered to go back and have a look at those early posts.

I can certainly recommend the first 10 posts as a good introduction to what I'm talking about here.

The Early Days

Emergency Preparation and Deliberate Descent were my first looks at what individuals, families and communities can do to cope in the age of scarcity.

Emergency Preparation

Deliberate Descent

In Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo I took a closer look at the lack of a reality based response from both the BAU (Business As Usual) people and the counterculture or "Crunchy" folks, and what a reality based response might actually look like.

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo

For those who are eagerly awaiting more on what individuals, family and communities might do to weather the collapse of industrial civilization, that will be the subject of my next series of posts. Before going ahead with that, though, I'm going to update the "About Me" section of the blog, with some more detailed autobiographical notes.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

What I've Been Reading, February 2018


These links appear in the order I read them. You may find some of the best ones are near the bottom—it varies from month to month. Last month I started a section at the bottom of the links on a subject that particularly interested me. This month I've added two more.

Minimum Wage


Puerto Rico




  • Surviving the Future, by David Fleming
    "Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy"
    An absolutely brilliant book that is unfortunately sprinkle throughout with little nuggets (turds) of crunchy nonsense.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Bumpy Road Down, Part 5: More Trends in Collapse

Bitteersweet Berries
Still on the vine in February

In my last post I started talking about some of the changes that will happen along the bumpy road down and the forces and trends that will lead to them. (The bumpy road down being the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity). These changes will be forced on us by circumstances and are not necessarily how I'd like to see things turn out.

The trends I covered last time were:

  • our continued reliance on fossil fuels
  • the continuing decline in availability, and surplus energy content, of fossil fuels
  • the damage the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate) will suffer in the next crash, and the effects this will have
  • the increase in authoritarianism, as governments attempt to optimize critical systems and relief efforts during and after the crash

Oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

I've once again included the stepped or "oscillating" decline diagram from previous posts here to make it easier to visualize what I'm talking about. This diagram isn't meant to be precise, certainly not when it comes to the magnitude and duration of the oscillations, which in any case will vary from one part of the world to the next.

The trends I want to talk about today are all interconnected. You can hardly discuss one without referring to the others, and so it is difficult to know where to start. But having touched briefly on a trend toward increased authoritarianism at the end of my last post, I guess I should continue trends in politics.

More Political Trends

Currently there seems to be a trend towards right wing politics in the developed world. I think anyone who extrapolates that out into the long run is making a basic mistake. Where right wing governments have been elected by those looking for change, they will soon prove to be very inept at ruling in an era of degrowth. Following that, there will likely be a swing in the other direction and left wing governments will get elected. Only to prove, in their turn, to be equally inept. Britain seems to be heading in this direction, and perhaps the U.S. as well.

Another trend is the sort of populism that uses other nations, and/or racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities at home as scapegoats for whatever problems the majority is facing. This strategy is and will continue to be used by clever politicians to gain support and deflect attention from their own shortcomings. Unfortunately, it leads nowhere since the people being blamed aren't the source of the problem.

During the next crash and following recovery governments will continue to see growth as the best solution to whatever problems they face and will continue to be blind to the limits to growth. Farther down the bumpy road some governments may finally clue in about limits. Others won't, and this will fuel continued growth followed by crashes until we learn to live within those limits.

One thing that seems clear is that eventually we'll be living in smaller groups and the sort of political systems that work best will be very different from what we have now.

Many people who have thought about this assume that we'll return to feudalism. I think that's pretty unlikely. History may seem to repeat itself, but only in loose outline, not in the important details. New situations arise from different circumstances, and so are themselves different. Modern capitalists would never accept the obligations that the feudal aristocracy had to the peasantry. Indeed freeing themselves of those obligations had a lot to do with making capitalism work. And the "99%" (today's peasantry) simply don't accept that the upper classes have any right, divine or otherwise, to rule.

In small enough groups, with sufficient isolation between groups, people seem best suited to primitive communism, with essentially no hierarchy and decision making by consensus. I think many people will end up living in just such situations.

In the end though, there will still be a few areas with sufficient energy resources to support larger and more centralized concentrations of population. It will be interesting to see what new forms of political structure evolve in those situations.

Economic Contraction

For the last couple of decades declining surplus energy has caused contraction of the real economy. Large corporations have responded in various ways to maintain their profits: moving industrial operations to developing countries where wages are lower and regulations less troublesome, automating to reduce the amount of expensive labour required, moving to the financial and information sectors of the economy where energy decline has so far had less effect.

The remaining "good" industrial jobs in developed nations are less likely to be unionized, with longer hours, lower pay, decreased benefits, poorer working conditions and lower safety standards. The large number of people who can't even get one of those jobs have had to move to precarious, part time, low paying jobs in the service industries. Unemployment has increased (despite what official statistics say) and the ranks of the homeless have swelled.

Since workers are also consumers, all this has led to further contraction of the consumer economy. We can certainly expect to see this trend continue and increase sharply during the next crash.

Our globally interconnected economy is a complex thing and that complexity is expensive to maintain. During the crash and the depression that follows it, we'll see trends toward simplification in many different areas driven by a lack of resources to maintain the existing complex systems. I'll be discussing those trends in a moment, but it is important to note that a lot of economic activity is involved in maintaining our current level of complexity and abandoning that complexity will mean even more economic contraction.

At the same time, small, simple communities will prove to have some advantages that aren't currently obvious.


All this economic contraction means that almost all of us will be significantly poorer and we'll have to learn to get by with less. As John Michael Greer says, "LESS: less energy, less stuff, less stimulation." We'll be forced to conserve and will struggle to get by with "just enough". This will be a harshly unpleasant experience for most people.


For the last few decades globalization has been a popular trend, especially among the rich and powerful, who are quick to extol its many supposed advantages. And understandably so, since it has enabled them to maintain their accustomed high standard of living while the economy as a whole contracts.

On the other hand, as I was just saying, sending high paying jobs offshore is a pretty bad idea for consumer economies. And I suspect that in the long run we'll see that it wasn't really all that good for the countries where we sent the work, either.

During the crash we'll see the breakdown of the financial and organizational mechanisms that support globalization and international trade. There will also be considerable problems with shipping, both due to disorganization and to unreliable the supplies of diesel fuel for trucks and bunker fuel for ships. I'm not predicting an absolute shortage of oil quite this soon, but rather financial and organizational problems with getting it out of the ground, refined and moved to where it is needed.

This will lead to the failure of many international supply chains and governments and industry will be forced to switch critical systems over to more local suppliers. This switchover will be part of what eventually drives a partial recovery of the economy in many localities.

In a contracting economy with collapsing globalization there would seem to be little future for multi-national corporations, and organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. While the crash may bring an end to the so called "development" of the "developing" nations, it will also bring an end to economic imperialism. At the same time, the general public in the developed world, many of whom are already questioning the wisdom of the "race to the bottom" that is globalization, will be even less likely to go along with it, especially when it comes to exporting jobs.

Still, when the upcoming crash bottoms out and the economy begins to recover, there will be renewed demand for things that can only be had from overseas and international trade will recover to some extent.


Impoverished organizations such a governments, multi-national corporations and international standards groups will struggle to maintain today's high degree of centralization and eventually will be forced to break up into smaller entities.

Large federations such as Europe, the US, Canada and Australia will see rising separatism and eventually secession. As will other countries where different ethnic groups have been forced together and/or there is long standing animosity between various localities. If this can be done peacefully it may actually improve conditions for the citizens of the areas involved, who would no longer have to support the federal organization. But no doubt it will just as often involve armed conflict, with all the destruction and suffering that implies.


The cessation of services from the FIRE industries and the resulting breakdown of international (and even national) supply and distribution chains will leave many communities with no choice but to fend for themselves.

One of the biggest challenges at first will be to get people to believe that there really is a problem. Once that is clear, experience has shown that the effectiveness of response from the victims of disasters is remarkable and I think that will be true again in this case. There are a lot of widely accepted myths about how society breaks down during disaster, but that's just what they are: myths. Working together in groups for our mutual benefit is the heart of humanity's success, after all.

Government response will take days or more likely weeks to organize, and in the meantime there is much we can do to help ourselves. Of course it helps to be prepared... (check out these posts from the early days of this blog: 1, 2) and I'll have more to say on that in upcoming posts.

The question then arises whether one would be better off in an urban center or a rural area such as a small town or a farm. Government relief efforts will be focused on the cities where the need will be greatest and the response easiest to organize. But just because of the millions of people involved, that response will be quite challenging.

Rural communities may well be largely neglected by relief efforts. But, especially in agricultural areas, they will find fending for themselves much more manageable.

I live in a rural municipality with a population of less than 12,000 people in an area of over 200 square miles (60 people per sq. mile, more than 10 acres per person). The majority of the land is agricultural, and supply chains are short, walking distance in many cases. Beef, dairy and cash crops are the main agricultural activities at present and they can easily be diverted to feed the local population. Especially if the food would go to waste anyway due to the breakdown of supply chains downstream from the farm.

So I think we're likely to do fairly well until the government gets around to getting in touch with us again, probably sometime after the recovery begins.

In subsequent crashes the population will be significantly reduced and those of us who survive will find ourselves living for the most part in very small communities which are almost entirely relocalized. The kind of economy that works in that situation is very different from what we have today and is concerned with many things other than growth and profit making.


The move toward automation that we've seen in the developed world since the start of the industrial revolution has been driven by high labour costs and the savings to be had by eliminating labour from industrial processes as much as possible. That revolution started and proceeded at greatest speed in Britain where labour rates where the highest, and still hasn't happened in many developing nations where labour is very cheap.

Sadly, the further impoverishment of the working class in Europe and North American will make cheaper labour available locally, rather than having to go offshore. During the upcoming crash, and in the depression following it, impoverished people will have no choice but to work for lower rates and will out compete automated systems, especially when capital to set them up, the cutting edge technology needed to make them work, and the energy to power them are hard to come by. Again, the economic advantages of simplicity will come into play when it is the only alternative, and help drive the recovery after the first crash.

The Food Supply and Overpopulation

In the initial days of the coming crash there will be problems with the distribution systems for food, medical supplies and water treatment chemicals, all of which are being supplied by "just in time" systems with very little inventory at the consumer end of the supply chain. To simplify this discussion, I'll talk primarily about food.

It is often said that there is only a 3 day supply of food on the grocery store shelves. I am sure this is approximately correct. In collapse circles, the assumption is that, if the trucks stop coming, sometime not very far beyond that 3 day horizon we'd be facing starvation. There may be a few, incredibly unlucky, areas where that will be more or less true.

But, depending on the time of year, much more food than that (often more than a year's worth) is stored elsewhere in the food production and distribution system. The problem will be in moving this food around to where it is needed, and in making sure another year's crops get planted and harvested. I think this can be done, much of it through improvisation and co-operation by people in the agricultural and food industries. With some support from various levels of government.

There will be some areas where food is available more or less as normal, some where the supply is tight, and other areas where there is outright famine and some loss of life (though still outstripped by the fecundity of the human race). In many ways that pretty much describes the situation today but supply chain breakdown, and our various degrees of success at coping with it, will make all the existing problems worse during the crash.

But once the initial crash is over, we have a much bigger problem looming ahead, which I think will eventually lead to another, even more serious crash.

With my apologies to my "crunchy" friends, modern agriculture and the systems downstream from it supply us with the cheapest and safest food that mankind has known since we were hunters and gatherers and allows us (so far) to support an ever growing human population.

The problem is that this agriculture is not sustainable. It requires high levels of inputs--primarily energy from fossil fuels, but also pesticides, fertilizers and water for irrigation--mostly from non-renewable sources. And rather than enriching the soil on which it depends, it gradually consumes it, causing erosion from over cultivation and over grazing, salinating the soil where irrigation is used and poisoning the water courses downstream with runoff from fertilizers. We need to develop a suite of sustainable agricultural practices that takes advantage of the best agricultural science can do for us, while the infrastructure that supports that science is still functioning.

The organic industry spends extravagantly to convince us that the problem with our food is pesticide residues and genetically engineered organisms, but the scientific consensus simply does not support this. The organic standards include so called "natural" pesticides that are more toxic than modern synthetic ones, and allow plant breeding techniques (such as mutagenesis) that are far more dangerous than modern genetic engineering. Organic standards could certainly be revised into something sustainable that retains the best of both conventional and organic techniques, but this has become such a political hot potato that it is unlikely to happen.

As I said above, during the upcoming crash one of the main challenges will be to keep people fed. And I have no doubt that this challenge will, for the most part, be successfully met. Diesel fuel will be rationed and sent preferentially to farmers and trucking companies moving agricultural inputs and outputs. Supplies of mineral fertilizers are still sufficient to keep industrial agriculture going. Modern pesticides actually reduce the need for cultivation and improve yields by reducing losses due to pests. It will be possible to divert grains grown for animal feed to feed people during the first year when the crisis is most serious.

Industrial agriculture will actually save the day and continue on to feed the growing population for a while yet. We will continue to make some improvement in techniques and seeds, though with diminishing returns on our efforts.

This will come to an end around mid century with the second bump on the road ahead (starting at point "g" on the graph), when a combination of increasing population, worsening climate, and decreasing availability and increasing prices of energy, irrigation water, fertilizer, pesticides and so forth combine to drastically reduce the output of modern agriculture.

Widespread famine will result, and this, combined with epidemics in populations weakened by hunger, will reduce the planet's human population by at least a factor of two in a period of a very few years. Subsequent bumps as climate change further worsens conditions for farming will further reduce the population, resulting in a bottleneck towards the end of this century. Without powered machinery, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and with drastically reduced water for irrigation, agricultural output will fall off considerably. And our population will fall to match the availability of food. I do think it unlikely that the human race will be wiped out altogether, but our numbers will likely be reduced by a factor of ten or more.

Turning to Violence as a Solution

It is a sad fact that many people, communities and nations, when faced with the sort of challenges I've been talking about here, will respond with violence.

In the remaining years leading up to the next crash, I think it is likely that even the least stable of world leaders (or their military advisors) will remain well aware of the horrific consequences of large scale nuclear war, and will manage to avoid it. As has been the case since the end of WWII, wars will continue to be fought by proxy, involving smaller nations in the developing world, especially where the supply of strategic natural resources are at issue.

War is extremely expensive though and, even without the help of a financial crash, military spending already threatens to bankrupt the U.S. As Dmitry Orlov has suggested, after a financial crash, the U.S. may find it difficult to even get its military personnel home from overseas bases, much less maintain those bases or pursue international military objectives.

But even in the impoverished post-crash world, I expect that border wars, terrorism, riots and violent protests will continue for quite some time yet.

Migration and Refugees

Whether from the ravages of war, climate change or economic contraction many areas of the world, particularly in areas like the Middle East, North Africa and the U.S. southwest, will become less and less livable. People will leave those areas looking for greener pastures and the number of refugees will soon grow past what can be managed even by the richest of nations. This will be a problem for Europe in particular, and more and more borders will be closed to all but a trickle of migrants. Refugees will accumulate in camps and for a while the situation will find an uneasy balance.

As we continue down the bumpy road, though, many nations will lose the ability to police their borders. Refugees will pour through, only to find broken economies that offer them little hope of a livelihood. Famine, disease and conflict will eventually reduce the population to where it can be accommodated in the remaining livable areas. But the ethnic makeup of those areas will have changed significantly due to large scale migrations.

In Conclusion

I've been talking here about some of the changes that will be forced upon us by the circumstances of collapse. I've said very little about what I think we might do if we could face up to the reality of those circumstances and take positive action. That's because I don't think there is much chance that we'll take any such action on a global or even national scale.

It's time now to wrap up this series of posts about the bumpy road down. At some point in the future I intend to do a series about of coping with collapse locally, on the community, family and individual level. I think there is still much than can be done to improve the prospects of those who are willing to try.

Links to the rest of this series of posts:
Political Realities / Collapse Step by Step / The Bumpy Road Down