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We tend to spend a lot of time looking at the various pronouncements of party grandees, looking for places to pick at, don’t we? Not today: today I want to share with you my views on dishonest dealings between parties and citizens.

Let’s start with email. Every email that is sent from a mailing list, or unsolicited, is supposed to provide a link to a removal capability, or some other means of being taken off the mailing list. Parties seem to think themselves above the law.

I have, as an example, asked the NDP to remove me from their mailings several times. When their emails have provided a link for removal, I have clicked it, and been told that I have been removed. Oddly enough, this does not stop the emails from coming. (I guess when you work in a party political office, “removal” must have a different meaning than the one normally found in either English or French.)

The latest emails — several a day, with a reply address of randomised characters but ostensibly by one or another MPs — are from the NDP convention taking place this weekend in Halifax. These have no removal capability. My repeated requests to no longer receive NDP emails have fallen on deaf ears.

Any corporation that acted in such a callous manner would (and should) expect to be called to account for it: in the court of public opinion, as the subject of media exposés, and perhaps even in a court of law. The NDP? Couldn’t care less, apparently.

So much for caring about “ordinary Canadians”. Let me say it in public once again: I don’t want any email from the New Democratic Party.

After all, I don’t see why I should give up an email address I’ve had for over a decade simply to make these clowns go away. (I’d also really like to figure out how they get past my spam filters, something they can apparently do with ease even though the other 300+ bits of junk I get a day all get trapped nicely and therefore don’t bother me.)

But the NDP are not alone. Try the Conservatives on for size.

To be fair, I don’t have a problem with Conservative emails. Four or five a year from my local EDA are not a big issue. What I’m plagued with by Conservative Central Office in Ottawa are an endless stream of telephone calls.

Once again, one might think that “no, I don’t want to donate to the Conservative Party” would be sufficient, but it’s not. About once every two or three weeks my phone starts ringing again. That is, my phones start ringing: office number, home number, cell phone number. Although these are not auto-dialler calls — whenever I pick up, there is always (without any delay) a person ready to go into their “an election could come any time” spiel — a message is never left.

I have reported their phone number (it is consistent) as over-the-top telemarketing. Doing this for banks, polling companies, insurance firms, department stores and all sorts of not-for-profit interest groups (in those cases where I’ve had to: most of those are more than willing to honour a request not to call me again) has inevitably stopped further calls. Not with this bucket shop of eager beavers! No, the calls keep coming.

I have changed one number and probably will need to change the other two, since communicating to the last three callers that “this is harassment, and that’s a criminal offence” hasn’t helped.

So, to all parties: I don’t want to answer your poll questions, and I don’t want to give you money. I don’t care how much your leader wants to thank me, reward me, meet me or whatever the come-on of the day is.

The Liberals, too, are not immune. I have an MP who thinks that because I took the time to write her an email once on an issue that I must want to receive every promotional email, mailing, etc. going. Joyce Murray, MP, let me be clear with you, too: I don’t care how many ribbons you cut, how passionate you are about an issue, how often you’re “visible” in the riding. Your MP mailers are a member’s privilege; thinking I want my email inbox cluttered because I wrote once to you is abusive.

You’ve convinced me, Ms. Murray, that hell will freeze over before I offer you my opinion again.

The BC NDP seem to have (finally!) gotten the message to leave me alone, and the BC Liberals, BC Greens and Federal Greens never bother me, thank goodness. (Applause to the Federal Greens, as I have donated to one campaign, but they seem to understand that support for a candidate in one election doesn’t translate into being a party supporter automatically.)

So … the next time you try to tell me you’re “tough on crime”, “working for the community”, “honouring your commitments”, “treating ordinary people with respect” (or whatever other plather your brain trusts and focus groups tell you to cram down my throat), take a good hard look at your own operations first. There’s not many of you that would pass the sniff test, either as individuals or as parties.

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It is incredibly easy to be negative. Not only does every broadcast, and every daily newspaper, overtly sell negativism — regardless of the issue or the line-up of the sides, it is easier to dump on “the other guys” than it is to figure out what can be done, and how, especially if ratings or circulation are required to make money! — but the principals involved, both politicians and their staff of backroom manipulators, have trouble with talking points that are positive. Being positive takes more effort, runs more risks, and takes more airtime than simply pointing fingers and saying “evil other guy!”. So negative sells up and down the line.

The voice of most bloggers is also resolutely negative. I am not happy to admit it, but most of my published words on this and predecessor blogs has likewise accentuated the negative, not the positive. It is a failing and one to be constantly fought against.

Yet being positive is important. Not only do the many issues of our communities, societies (and even our own personal ones) and countries require proponents to propose action so that we can begin to map out courses of action — the outcome of mere opposition simply maintains the status quo — but relentless negativism in its turn saps our energy. We begin to leave things alone: how much grief can one person stand? So we check out, and leave the future to others.

The trend line is clear: election after election, poll question after poll question, fewer of us care enough to want to take part. We are destroying our society through our abdication of responsibility.

When I talk to my voting-age daughter, who does not vote, has no intention of getting involved, and is positively cheerful about moving away from Canada in part because she will be an immigrant who need not ever become a citizen (and therefore is free of responsibility for the future), her objection to being involved boils down simply to the negativism of it all. “Why bother?”, she asks, “nothing will change; nothing will break through this gridlock”.

We — yes, me, and you, and all the others around us — have made the world into a place for which care is left aside.

I see the pernicious effect of this repeatedly. I have many good friends for whom it simply “is not possible” that a Conservative Government, or our Prime Minister, could ever put forward good options. They do not even lay out what’s better about another option: the entire thrust is negative. (This is similar to being barraged by a complete and exclusive diet of Warren Kinsella’s blog, or a mailbox full of NDP literature — the only message is relentlessly “against”.)

Meanwhile, in BC, the same holds: no matter who complains, or how loudly, about some government policy, the capstone statement is always “against” the opposition and the very conception of them ever being in power, no matter what.

Does this make sense to you? It certainly makes no sense to the young people I’ve talked to. What’s disturbing me about this is that this is translating into “a pox on all of your houses” — no reading of quality articles in the press, no watching or listening to quality broadcasting, no working within the community to make things better (however “better” is defined in the eyes of the person getting involved). Instead, they check out, and the game grinds on (and illegitimi non sed te carborundum may be said, but we are ground down, too).

Meanwhile, take a look around you. Depression and anxiety are on the rise. (So is the popping of prescription pharmaceuticals and casual drugs — alcohol, marijuana, etc. — as forms of relief.) Families become places where people pass in the night but dare not speak out. Tension abounds. In other words, we are making ourselves, our loved ones and our society sick.

There is with this — as with almost everything — one solid answer that each and any one of us can pick up and work with, even when no one else will join in. That is to drop our own negativity, as best we can, and be relentlessly positive.

Being positive is all about putting forward options, recognition of good proposals, working for the future. Being Dr. Pangloss, with relentless optimism in the face of the evidence, is merely the flip side of the negativism. Treating others as worthy of our ideas recognises them as humans like ourselves; treating them to a steady diet of bullshit (whether of the “aren’t they wonderful” or “aren’t they horrid” types) is not.

It is a road of personal healing, emotional fulfilment, societal sustainability. Isn’t that worth the effort to overcome the downgrading experience of our reading, listening, viewing?

I think so. I hope you will too. Even more to the point, I invite you to help me be positive by pointing out when I slip into being negative. We all need to hear this sort of thing, if we are to be healthy and create a society that thrives.

The Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) has attracted no shortage of detractors (and call-in show anger) in both Ontario and British Columbia. Both provinces intend to convert from today’s Federal GST + Provincial PST system to a single HST on 1 July 2010. The combined rate (GST + PST) and the HST rate are the same: 12% in BC; 13% in Ontario. So, why the uproar?

Let’s set aside the “look at all the things currently PST-exempt that will be HST-chargeable” comments. Yes, my clients will have to pay a 12% HST rather than a 5% GST for my professional services. Since 100% of my clients are businesses, they, in turn, will turn that 12% into an input tax credit (ITC). Meanwhile, such supplies as I buy today that I pay PST on — say, anything bought from an office supply store — now become an ITC for me to deduct from the HST owing at the end of the quarter. Is it a pure benefit? No, of course not. Neither is it as bad as it is made out to be.

Odd, isn’t it, how many people — especially the same call-in show hosts and talking heads that today decry the HST — dumped all over the Conservative Government for taking the GST rate from 7% to 5%, saying it was bad economics not to tax consumption, and now dump all over the two provincial governments in question for creating a consumption tax rather than a transaction tax (which is what a PST is).

Yet we don’t see these people called out on this. No one phones in to say “bloody hypocrite” — of course, it’s equally likely that such people are amongst those stuck in the queue, never reaching the air, and whose recorded message is just never broadcast. The media game is layered in hypocrisy, as are all moribund, decayed institutions run for the benefit of those in charge rather than for the traditional purpose they serve in society.

Frankly, the challenge that ought to be levied against the HST is the same one that ought to be levied against the existing GST and PST: all of these turn independent businessfolk — the entrepreneurs simply trying to keep their families fed in an honest manner — into unpaid clerks. Most then in turn must hire accountants to do the paperwork (more expense, money out of their pockets). Remittances must be made based on when the service is performed, not when the invoice is paid: these people are often out of pocket for weeks. These taxes require anyone who makes more than $30,000 per year through their own efforts to become a tax collector.

That’s worth shouting about. A change in calculation methods is not.

As a consumer, yes, services costs are going up. My barber need not charge PST; he will have to charge HST. There are many others. In turn, though, as a consumer (the only person who can’t play the input tax credit game to pass it all on to the next player in the “value” chain), how much I spend, and on what is up to me.

Am I likely to cut my barber off? No — but I am likely to stop being lazy and going to the local café for lunch and instead make my own. The fact that there are winners and losers, however, is nothing new: every tax change creates them; the only tax regime that doesn’t distort the economy somewhere is the tax that is repealed, or never applied.

Knowing this, what I am actually even more likely to do is go to my local, entrepreneurially run café from time to time — and stay far, far away from chains of any sort. You see, the chains have the resources to be tax collectors; the couple that runs my local café (she waitresses and tends cash; he cooks) have to give up their limited personal time to do the government’s bloody paperwork. If anyone deserves my support, it’s them — not some faceless corporation with outlets from one end of the country to the other that opens and closes locations based on profitability targets and not upon how well the location is actually doing in the community (a place it doesn’t know and doesn’t care about).

Yet it is the entrepreneur who is likely to go under with this change, not “big corporate eatery, inc.”.

What does deserve opprobrium, and in spades, is the sheer waste of our tax dollars on useless programs, taxes on taxes, and governments that think tax raises in the future (deficits to be paid down) are perfectly reasonable choices to make. But the “something for nothing” and “my neighbour should pay” crowds are drowning out the fiscal conservative.

What deserves even more disdain and active opposition is politicians who fight elections on one tax policy, then, within a few weeks, reverse themselves and impose it. (Gordon Campbell and his BC Liberals come to mind: the Finance Minister, my nogoodnik MLA, denied outright we’d do an HST, then reversed field after the election. Liar!) But no one is willing to consider doing anything about that: callers in BC are resolute that no other party could possibly, ever, be elected.

Instead, the whingeing continues; the small and independent business person will be burdened once again, and our society will all truck off to the chains to save a nickel. We are a sick, sick people.

As for me, I’m going to find an ordinary job and draw a salary. I’m tired of being unpaid labour for governments. The market can bloody well do without whatever value I offered it. The less I make, the less I’ll spend. Stick that, Mr. Premier & Mr. Prime Minister, in your GDP calculations and smoke it. Oh, and I’m leaving British Columbia. The province I go to will probably have an HST, but at least I won’t have to put up with brain-dead fellow citizens and known lying manipulators in office.

Thomas Hobbes, an English Philosopher active during the Cromwellian Revolution, is remembered today as the founder of the social contact school of political philosophy, encapsulated in his famous aphorism:

[L]ife in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”

In a world of anarchy (despite the protestations of Randites and rational anarchists) it is likely to be, for it takes only one or two who decide to act against their long-term interests as a member of that society to reduce it to precisely what Hobbes describes.

What does this mean for the moral role of government, then? What is a government required to do (by virtue of its reason for being created)? At what point do demands for action by government move beyond that moral foundation?

This article is concerned not with the limits — that’s for other days to come — but with the moral requirement placed on any who act to govern society.

Certainly, first and foremost (looking at Hobbes’ aphorism), the safety of the commonweal, or of the society is a moral requirement of government. This takes several forms:

  • A degree of security from external attack. This is the role of a military.
  • A degree of security from internal attack. This is the role of a police force.
  • A means by which authority is held to account, requiring that sufficient proof of a violation of security has occurred. This is the role of a system of law and criminal justice.
  • A means by which disputes and claims one against another for redress can be heard and publicly adjudicated. This is the role of a system of civil law, mediation and hearings.
  • The essence of openness to opportunity, making local (i.e. the efforts of an individual or a small group of people working in common) economic life possible. This is the role of regulation.

That is what Hobbes’ aphorism describes — this much, and no more.

I think most of us understand the notions of community defence — whether that be keeping a village safe in a world of highwaymen, as in Hobbes’ time, or in our modern sense of national defence — and I think most of us understand the idea of policing.

Military capabilities avoid war and counter-war and raids. At its core, this can be the Swiss notion that everyone serves in the military for most of their life and keeps their weapons: rifles, machine guns, mortars, etc. at home: more than sufficient for neutrality, simply by making invasion “too expensive”, although most prefer a professional military cadre (modern weapons are not easily operated by the traditional order-following “cannon fodder”). The moral authority to attack I shall leave for another day, but certainly the military is founded on the idea that one must defend ahead of the community’s actual invasion and destruction.

Policing used to be similar to this: the constable patrolling on foot did not presume the criminal intent of the citizens, and did watch for the early warning signs of a crime being undertaken. (Today’s motorised police, aided and abetted by cameras and other recording instruments, presume the criminal intent of everyone. The price of fighting terror is, again, something to leave for another day, as is the morality of traffic cameras and the like as a revenue source.)

The military does not decide to attack (or to down weapons and fail to defend) in a moral society; it is an arm of government, not its master. So, too, police are an arm of government, not its master — but because it is easier to accuse an individual than to take up arms as a community, there are requirements to (a) define what is a crime and (b) the rules of evidence and procedure to establish that a crime was committed by this person so charged. So to their third pillar: criminal justice.

For a matter of criminal law to be morally proper, the law must tie back to the moral principle underlying government: the safety of the citizen. Note, please, that I do not say “security”: security is a licence to exceed moral bounds on behalf of interests, which inevitably set one part of the community against another given enough time. Safety is the commitment and the goal, but not the driver.

Questions about laws taken beyond this point are also for another day.

Finally, we come to regulation. The reach of an individual is quite limited: even if, as in some massive family enterprises, covering many types of initiative, the hands drop with death. We need not therefore fear the successful person of high ambition. What we do need to fear is the body corporate: this is a “person” who need not die (if properly managed).

But corporate bodies can also reach far beyond what an individual or family can do in a single lifetime. They thus can bring power to bear that diminishes opportunity for individuals, risking their economic safety (the opportunity to succeed at making a living). Thus some forms of regulation are the final moral responsibility of government.

Indeed, without regulations about scale, the economic space is diminished.

Take a hard look at our society today.

How is our military used? Canadian Governments have systematically underfunded and underequipped the Canadian Armed Forces for national defence, yet think nothing of committing our fellow citizens into matters of geopolitical interest. They are not fit for their moral purpose despite the heroism and efforts of the troops.

How are our police used? Increasingly, these are used to anticipate rather than protect: people are arrested because they might do something. No one dare challenge an officer: the charge of interference or resistance is immediately laid. Police, in other words, are beyond the citizen’s control; police budgets are never really challenged. Meanwhile the police make themselves remote to the citizenry: beat patrolling is a lost art, and no officer knows a person as an individual. There is only a long list of “people well known to the police”. They are — again, despite the personal moral commitments of many officers — not fit for their moral purpose.

Our system of criminal law has routinely made criminal many normal acts, either to enforce ideas of social justice, or to make personal moral choices a criminal matter, or in the name of “security”. Our courts, in trying to redress these imbalances, fail us by bending too far in the other direction, and there are not adequate checks and balances in our legal procedures to avoid endless appeals and interventions, or unnecessary delay. (Civil procedure has similar failings, but as mediation and arbitration are alternatives it is only when the individual faces off against a corporate person that such inequity is likely to lead to damage to self and property.)

Finally, we encourage the destruction of the community as a community by encouraging the destruction of local enterprise, through a misunderstanding of the role of regulation allowing far too many corporate bodies to plunder while, at the same time, making change difficult due to many other regulations that can only seriously be met by such bodies, not individuals.

When a government acts immorally, it needs to be put down and society reordered. It is my belief we are moving back toward greater locality in the near future. We should take this opportunity to build new communities founded with governance that is fit to purpose.

Otherwise, I fear many of our lives will end up being nasty, brutish and short.

I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day this morning (03.08.2009) on less-tightly knit communities having their positive sides. It sparked some thoughts, as you might imagine.

I make no bones about the fact that I have been an urban dweller all of my adult life. My move away from my parents’ home (which is what was then a suburb but now within the city limits of Toronto) was directly to a central city apartment. Only twice since have I lived in a suburban community (Trumbull, CT, USA and Coquitlam, BC, Canada); otherwise, whether in Toronto, New York, The Hague or Vancouver I have always lived right in the city — indeed, within an hour’s walk of the financial/commercial centre at most (and, thus, within 20-25 minutes by transit).

Part of this has been driven by my work — I have always needed access to a good International Airport, almost all of which (if one chooses not to pay outrageously for parking) are associated with cities and either the city transit system, an affordable taxi fare or are directly served by inter-city rail (as was the case in The Hague). Part of it, too, is a need to find (and have coffee with) interesting fellow travellers on the road of life: a city offers far more opportunities to meet other people who have had experiences and share interests. (My three regular coffee companions in Vancouver are all, like me, people who have lived and worked in Europe, the USA and in Canada; none of us makes our living in Vancouver, but we’ve all settled here at least for a while.) The last part, however, has been the most important: settling into a city culture means anonymity.

For, as the Reverend Canon Dr. Giles Fraser noted in his Thought for the Day, small communities — hamlets, villages, etc. — are noted for their tight-knit bonds, where everyone knows all about everyone else, knows all their business, and where the community becomes (in the words of Eric Voegelin) a cosmion or little world. If you fit into it — your opinions match, your tastes match, your beliefs match, your speech and appearance match (at least well enough) — fine; if not, best pack up and move. Cities, on the other hand, can have people of widely-varying views, experiences, tastes, beliefs, etc. share not just the same street but the same floor in an apartment building without incident. Each is mostly anonymous to others. As with Facebook or Twitter or other social networks (which take this point to its conclusion) the city dweller moves in circles of co-workers, co-believers, co-activity without reference to his immediate neighbours.

It is this anonymity of the city which I cherish. Nevertheless, I see a small town, and then a village, in my future. Here’s why.

The virtues of city living are purchased at a price. Cities live at the end of long supply lines that — thanks to population density — don’t create much inventory. (The density of potential buyers of anything means that the shopkeeper does better turning the inventory frequently, unless the items in stock are highly specialised: it is in world cities that one finds shops dedicated to the sale of an individual type of item.) As a result, any disruption to those supply lines and people in cities are deeply inconvenienced at best, starve at worst. (City dwellers, too, tend not to keep much on hand, since around the clock shopping is right outside their door.)

In cities, too, the density to allow transit systems, etc., to fluorish and operate at a manageable cost means that we build up, not out. Do you recall the power outage of 2003 in Eastern North America? I have a friend who lives on the 21st floor of his apartment building. Twenty-one floors is a long climb down for supplies, and up with bags, simply to eat.

The credit crisis, peak energy, and a host of other issues are tearing away at the fabric of those supply lines and the stability of city systems. A friend of mine who is a village dweller in upstate New York has oil lamps mounted on his walls, a very large propane tank outside, and other internal means of living for several weeks without deliveries (for supplies to his village are cut off for days at a time due to impassible roads each and every winter), and lives on foods that store easily without power or refrigeration. Living like this in a city is not easily possible. Living like this in a village is normal.

For that reason the more tightly-knit communities Fraser talks of — if one can join the little world of it — are more likely to handle disruptions better than are urban areas. (The suburbs, being neither country nor city, will fare worst of all, I fear.)

I have not lost my love of the freedom of the city — Stadtluft macht frei is as true today as it was in the High Mediaeval — but planning for a long healthy old age means (to me) thinking about where to achieve that. I suspect that tightly-knit neighbourhoods are a key part of that. Cities and suburbs can develop these (and may well do so in time) but for now villages bring that just by being there. (A village that has become a bedroom community to an urban area is a suburb, simply one with much higher aesthetic values.)

Where would you prosper under different conditions? It’s a question worth thinking about.

The long-awaited day of extradition for Karlheinz Schreiber came last night, as he was sent back to Germany after years of delaying tactics. It’s tempting at this point to say “and good riddance”, but schadenfreude is unbecoming.

What the whole sorry saga of Karlheinz Schreiber points out, actually, is that our political and justice systems are functioning as designed — which makes them broken.

For instance, in our politics, one is either in Government or one is not (if you’re an MP). Since we recognise the role of a “Leader of the Opposition”, almost by definition any MP who is not in allegiance with the Government is an Opposition member, and expected, through that role, to work to bring the Government down. (I’d note in passing that being a member of the Governing Party does not automatically make an MP a member of the Government: that has to do with taking the Whip, as our system is silent on the subject of parties.)

Since “Governments Defeat Themselves”, as the old saying goes, it is almost an Opposition MP’s “duty” to create traps for the Government so that they can do just that. The Opposition’s championing of Karlheinz Schreiber’s incessant promises of “disclosing all” thus was distasteful, perhaps, but in line with this perception of an Opposition MP’s “duty”. (Again, our system is silent on how an Opposition MP is supposed to fulfil their duties — perhaps offering alternatives, questioning subsequent outcomes of Government policy and the like might equally well fulfil “the duty to Oppose” — but let Parliament’s responding to Schreiber’s allegations rest there.)

At Schreiber’s press conference on the steps of the Toronto Metro West Detention Centre just before he was extradited, he once again made reference to his potential to disclose in connection with the Airbus Affair, bemoaning the fact that the Oliphant enquiries had been limited to simply the interactions and exchanges between Schreiber and former Prime Minister Mulroney. Still the promises of disclosure, all part of a long running soap opera designed to keep dangling carrots so as to be kept in the country and not face the German courts.

One might compliment the Government of Stephen Harper for those limits — certainly a part of a Government not trying to defeat itself — but I note that at any time in the past eleven years since Germany requested Schreiber’s extradition he’s been absolutely free to state what he knows that is potentially so damaging. It has been his choice throughout to remain silent.

As for our justice system, he has received (unlike many Canadians) speedy service throughout. Courts have bent over backward to hear his appeals. He has been extended every courtesy. Where our system is broken is in allowing an endless stream of new interventions, attempts to loop back through the process of the system to force it to restart at an earlier point.

Many might blame Schreiber’s counsel for this. I will say no kind thing about barristers and solicitors here. But it is counsel’s job to use every means possible, including “every trick in the book”, on his client’s behalf. It is our judicial process which lacks reasonable limits.

Oddly enough, my freedom to speak and to publish is limited (as per Trudeau’s Charter) to what is reasonable in a free and democratic society, but the ability to continue to tie up the judicial system from reaching the end point of a process has no such limits. That — rather than allowing bureaucrats and governments of the day to take fundamental human rights away from citizens — is far more important.

So some may cheer that the day of Schreiber’s departure has come, and some may bemoan his “being taken to the plane” without having the chance to “get to the bottom of things”. (Nothing stops Schreiber, incidentally, from disclosing what he knows even in Germany.) But I think the whole sordid tale of his eleven year delay with his appointment in a German court points out two fundamental flaws that are slowly bringing down our country: a lack of ethical dimension in what it is to Oppose, and a lack of limits to interventions in the judicial process.

We could do far worse than repair both of these.

Good day to you, and welcome to Changes Galore. It’s good to have you here.

I have had a number of blogs over the past two years, but this one is meant to be different from my preceding blog efforts. Here you will find (over time) many more areas of content than I have previously created.

Not only is our society undergoing a set of massive changes — mostly denied by anyone in power — but I am personally doing likewise. In Changes Galore I intend to deal both with the external, and the internal changes. I’m not planning to share my own adaptations and alterations simply for reasons of ego: I hope that by writing about them I can open you (if needed) to change, too.

Changes Galore is a journey. I hope you’ll find it interesting. Your comments are very welcome.