Sunday, July 26, 2015


I had a teacher in high school who always wore high-waisted, pleated pants, and I thought they made her look frumpy. This teacher was the kind of person who would otherwise have come across as youthful and with-it - she was under 40, savvy, up on her students' pop culture, able to discern who had a crush on whom, meticulous with her hair and makeup - but I thought these pants were so aging and out of touch.

It occurs to me that teenagers today probably think the exact same thing about me and my boot-cut pants.

I have noticed recently that when I see boot-cut, flared or wide-legged pants being worn in media from 10-15 years ago, it seems a bit out of place.  But, nevertheless, I feel badass in my own boot-cut pants, and frumpy in skinnies.  So I keep wearing what makes me feel badass, even if Kids Today might be laughing at it. Flares are scheduled to come back in a few years anyway.


I blogged previously about the recent trend among young women of wearing high-waisted pants with shirts tucked in.   I recently found out why they do this: they believe it's slimming because the well-defined waist emphasizes how small their natural waist is.  This flabbergasted me because, with my fashion awareness having happened just as the last shirt-tucking trend waned and shirt untucking (with narrow shirts) came into fashion, I think an untucked shirt is more slimming because it creates a smoother line, and a tucked shirt is less slimming because it creates a sausage effect.  In one of my journeys down an internet rabbit hole, I landed in a fashion forum populated by young women where people posted comparison pictures to prove that high waists and tucking and belting was more slimming, and I genuinely felt that these pictures demonstrated beyond any doubt that an untucked shirt was more slimming.  We're looking at the exact same thing and seeing it as a complete opposite!

I'm not going to link to the examples I saw, because it isn't appropriate to send my adult readership to look at pictures of teens and scrutinize their figures with the general message of "See how these kids think they look slim but they really look lumpen!"  So, instead, I'm going to show you two pictures of actress Angie Dickinson from the 1950s:

Angie Dickinson (right) in a belted bodysuit
Angie Dickinson in a non-belted bodysuit

I think the outfit on the left is less flattering, specifically because of the belt. To my eyes, the belt creates a sausage effect with the soft part of her belly above and below, making her tummy below look sticky-outy, and the fleshy bit above look like a roll of fat.  Obviously this effect is very minimal on Ms. Dickinson - it's far more pronounced on a person with a more average figure - but you can see the hint of it here.  In contrast, I think the outfit on the right is more flattering because it creates a smoother line without any bulges of flesh.

However, people who choose high waists and tucked-in shirts see the picture on the left as more flattering, because the belt is cinched tightly around her waist, showing just how small her waist can be made to go. They'd see the picture on the right as less flattering, because it doesn't necessarily demonstrate the minimum possible circumference of her waist.

This isn't just an evolution of fashion trends, it's a complete change in what different people perceive when looking at the exact same thing!  It will be interesting to see how the fashion choices of the belt = thinner contingent evolve as trends change and, eventually, a high waist and tucked-in shirt once again become signs of frumpiness.  I've blogged before about differing generational perceptions of pants length. Maybe in a decade or two, we'll also have differing generational perceptions of waistlines.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Idea density

I've been reading about the famous Nun Study of Alzheimer's disease, and specifically about its findings relating to idea density.

As part of the study, they analyzed essays that the nuns wrote when they were in their early 20s, and found that nuns who didn't get Alzheimer's had higher idea density in their essays, and nuns who did get Alzheimer's had lower idea density.

An example of a sentence with high idea density, taken from this article:

"After I finished the eighth grade in 1921 I desired to become an aspirant at Mankato but I myself did not have the courage to ask the permission of my parents so Sister Agreda did it in my stead and they readily gave their consent."

An example of a sentence with low idea density:

"After I left school, I worked in the post-office."

Interpretations of this finding tend to view high idea density as equivalent to better language skills. But when I read about this, my first thought was that some nuns may have been able to write a more idea-dense essay, but chose not to.  They may have thought a simpler style more appropriate to the purpose of this essay.  They may not have enormous colour to add to this one particular subject.  Maybe they didn't have as much time as they would have liked.  Maybe the pen they were using was uncomfortable to write with. It's possible that their writing style may even have matured away from frills - I know when I was younger, I went through a phase of writing ridiculously (yes, even more ridiculously than now) in an attempt to emulate of the Victorian authors I was reading at the time.

Even if we accept the assumption that high idea density equals better language skills (I'm reminded of the much-attributed "Please excuse the long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one."), we have no way of knowing how many of the subjects had higher linguistic ability but chose not to use it to its fullest extent for that particular essay.  What if the true predictor of Alzheimer's is instead whatever process leads the subject to assess that particular essay assignment as more conducive to a simpler writing style?

It would also be interesting to see if the idea density correlation persists over generations.  The various examples of high idea-density sentences I've read seem old-fashioned to me (probably reflecting the fact that the nuns wrote them in the first half of the 20th century), while the low idea-density sentences seemed more timeless. 

Actually, it might also be a function of the specific education the subject received. Someone being trained in writing today would be guided away from certain stylistic elements in the high idea density example given above (although not necessarily from idea density itself), and these elements seemed fairly common in the various examples of high idea density sentences I've read from this study.

It would also be interesting to see if the idea density pattern holds up in other languages.  In my French writing classes, I was nudged towards a higher idea density than I'd land on naturally, although I never find myself wishing for lower idea density as I translate French to English. Other languages might gravitate to lower or higher density for syntactic or cultural reasons, which might change the correlations with Alzheimer's.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ideas for the Damage Control LW who wants to avoid disclosing her surgery

I didn't notice this Damage Control column when it first came out, but I have an idea for the letter-writer:

I am in my early 30s. As a teenager, I was quite obese (300 lbs), but I am very grateful to say that I have been slim now for several years. But my body still “bears the wounds” of my previous weight: lots of loose skin, a sagging chest, etc. Special garments were needed to hold it in. I recently underwent the first of two surgeries to correct my loose skin, a procedure called a body lift. I took a month off work, and was paid through the company’s short-term disability plan. Though I did say it would be the first of two surgeries, I did not tell people at work the exact nature of my surgery: I think there is a stigma attached to cosmetic procedures. I did get the odd “soft inquiry,” but kept mum. My dilemma is that my second surgery involves a lift and augmentation of both my bum and breast area. How do I handle telling my boss and co-workers without revealing too much or coming off as cold and closed off? Also, how do I respond should I get comments about my new appearance? While I fear negative judgment about being “paid to get a boob job,” this is a private issue that has a long history.
 The columnist recommends sending a mass email with an explanation, which I strongly disagree with.  Sending this email might give the impression that your private parts are open for discussion, not to mention that people could feel sexually harassed if they started receiving unsolicited emails about their colleagues' private parts. It might be appropriate in certain cases to tell the whole story to one or two selected colleagues one on one, if the subject should come up in an informal private conversation (depending greatly on context and the nature of the specific interpersonal relationship).  It's even plausible that in some offices, with some specific combinations of interpersonal relationships, it might even be appropriate to tell everyone at happy hour or around the water cooler.  But this isn't a subject for an email. I never thought I'd say this, but email's too formal.  If you disclose, it should be in an informal context that's marked as outside the scope of Business.

But as I read the letter, an idea occurred to me for a two-tiered sneaky approach that could be used if she chooses not to disclose the actual nature of her surgery.

Basic sneaky approach: come up with a cover story about how recovering from an unnamed surgery might cause your body to change shape.  For example, "My doctor recommended Pilates to help me regain strength in various areas after my surgery." True but secondary would be best (e.g. if you don't eat as much when recovering from surgery), but false but plausible would work too. Think about this very carefully, so it's consistent with any observable changes to your body after your first surgery and the changes that will be observed in your body after your second surgery, and script a delivery that will allow you to segue away from the topic of your surgery onto other topics (e.g. "But I've only ever tried Pilates mat work, I've never been to a gym where they use those machines. Does your Pilates class use the machines?  What's it like?")  Once you've worked this out, drop it into conversation with a co-worker or two next time the opportunity arises.  Then, if the rumour mill starts discussing the change in your body shape, an explanation straight from the horse's mouth is readily available.

Advanced sneaky approach: do some research and find another kind of surgery that could plausibly require two procedures and have similar recovery time and other observable effects to what your colleagues can observe about you.  I don't have the medical knowledge to come up with a real example, so I'll use a fake example: boneitis.  Suppose you do some research and discover that boneitis surgery can require two procedures, at similar spacing, with similar recovery times, and can result in a similar change in physical appearance.  Now, if you're ever in a situation where people are inquiring about your medical situation, you can hint in the direction of boneitis.  Don't explicitly say you have boneitis! Instead, present as someone who has boneitis and wants to be discreet about it, so that if people google the hints you're dropping, boneitis will come up near the top of the results.

Obviously this is a bit complex, and whether you actually want to do it will depend on how secret you want to keep your medical situation and your own capacity of subterfuge. But it is an option if you're finding it difficult to say nothing, but don't want to actively disclose.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Unnecessary TTC announcements

I was riding a subway northbound on the Yonge line. As we travelled from Davisville to Eglinton, the driver made an announcement: "Attention all passengers: we are currently bypassing Spadina station in both directions on both lines due to a police investigation."

Problem: We were heading north from Davisville to Eglinton, which is directly away from Spadina station.  To be affected by delays at Spadina station, a passenger on our train would have to get out, board a train heading in the opposite direction, and travel quite a few stations.  It's highly unlikely that anyone would do this!

Back in my commuting days, I've been on trains where this happened quite a few times - the driver announces a delay that's behind us, or heading in the opposite direction, and therefore is not going to affect our train at all and isn't going to affect any of the passengers unless they get out and switch to a train heading in the opposite direction.  These aren't system-wide loudspeaker announcements, like you hear made by a pre-recorded voice when waiting on the platform.  These are announcements made specifically by the driver of our one train.

I don't think they should make these announcements. 

One thing I've noticed since I started following @TTCNotices on Twitter is that the vast majority of delays are cleared very quickly, often within just a couple of minutes. I also learned, back in my commuting days, that even delays for which shuttle buses are called are often cleared so quickly that it's better to wait them out than to get on a shuttle bus.

So I think having drivers make a specific effort to announce delays that don't apply to the train will just make passengers unnecessarily worry and stress and think the system is unreliable.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the audio quality of driver announcements is not as good as that of recorded announcements, so it produces some unnecessary "Wait, what did he say?" moments.

If any passengers are going to be affected by the delay in the opposite direction or behind us, they'll have plenty of time to find out when they're waiting on the platform for their opposite-direction trip, or when they look at one of the video screens on the platforms, or when they check Twitter.

But I think nothing is gained by having drivers make an announcement just within their train when the announcement definitely does not apply to that train.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Things They Should Invent: emails that self-delete once they've expired

1. Sometimes I get coupons in my email that are only good for a limited time or on a certain day, or if I spend a certain amount of money.  Often when I get them, I don't immediately know whether I might be making any purchases that qualify. But then, a few days later, I realize that I might possibly have a coupon that matches a purchase I'm going to be making.  So I search for my email, but the results turn up hundreds of coupons (since I never delete anything) and I don't know which ones are still valid and have to open more emails than should be necessary to determine whether there is in fact a relevant coupon.

2. Sometimes I email someone and get an out-of-office message.  If I'm subsequently sending group emails that are only relevant immediately (as opposed to something they'll need when they get back from their absence), I like to leave the people who are absent off the email list.  The easiest way to see who is absent is to visually scan my inbox and see whom I've received Out of Office messages from. (They have a distinctive icon in Outlook, so I can tell at a glance.)  But, again, the problem is that I can't tell at a glance if the out-of-office is still in effect, so I have to open more out-of-office messages than necessary to determine who I should leave off the group emails.

Proposed solution: optional expiry dates in emails.  If the content of the email is expired, the email is deleted from the recipient's inbox.  This would apply automatically to out-of-office messages - once the recipient is back in office, the out-of-office message is deleted from the recipient's inbox.

Variation: recipients can have the option to turn off the self-deleting (either as for all emails in their inbox or on an email-by-email basis), but the default setting is self-deletion once the email expires.

Or if that's just too much to handle, a technological solution for the out-of-office problem would be for automatically-generated out-of-office messages to state the return date in the subject line. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Why young LCBO workers still card me?

One of the things we did in my Sociolinguistics class in university was analyze print advertisements.  While analyzing an ad for some kind of beauty product, the prof asked us who the target audience is.

"Women at the age where they are just starting to see fine lines on their face," said one of my classmates. 

"And what age is that?" asked the prof?

"Late 20s," said one of my older classmates.  The other older classmates and the prof all nodded and murmured assent.

I was rather surprised that the beginnings of wrinkles would turn up while you're still in your 20s, but, being only 19 years old myself at the time, I had no actual frame of reference.

My own fine lines began showing right on schedule,  at the age of 27.  And, since I became aware of them, I also began noticing the presence or absence of lines on other people's faces.  I must have seen people with fine lines before, probably including those of my classmates in that Sociolinguistics class who could attest expertly to when fine lines start making their appearance, but it was never a factor that I took specific note of when processing a face as a whole.

It occurs to me that this might be the answer to the mystery of why younger LCBO workers keep carding me when older workers stopped long ago!

If the younger LCBO workers are like my younger self, they might not notice my fine lines as evidence that I'm no teenager.  But they'd be more likely to notice my acne since they've most likely been through acne themselves.

Similarly, people who haven't started greying yet might not notice my few individual grey hairs (I didn't notice random strands of grey on people who were anything less than salt-and-pepper before I started greying myself), but the fact that my hair is long, which is culturally marked as youthful, is readily apparent to anyone of any age.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Books read in June 2015


1. The Housekeeper's Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House by Tessa Boase
2. Naked Came the Phoenix (serial novel) by Barr, Robb, Pickard, Scottoline, O'Shaughnessy, Jance, Kellerman, Clark, Talley, Perry, Gabaldon, McDermid and King
3. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine


1. Immortal in Death
2. Rapture in Death

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Epsom salts are the solution to blisters!

Content warning: this post contains graphic, yucky descriptions of blisters and feet. tl;dr: if you have blisters on your feet, soak them in water with epsom salts

Last week, I wore my awesome brown sandals for the first time this season. Even though I've been wearing them comfortably for years, this time around they somehow managed to give me an enormous blister on the bottom of my foot, right where the heel meets the arch of the foot. I was a fair distance from home when I realized I was developing a blister, so I had to walk for another half an hour before I could take the shoes off and treat the blister.  By this time, the blister had grown to about three finger-widths in diameter.

This was, clearly, a problem. I didn't want to burst the blister because then the outer layer of skin would peel off and I'd have an open wound on the bottom of my foot.  (Not the most hygienic place for an open wound!) But if I put a shoe on my foot, the blister would burst by itself from being compressed between my foot and the shoe.  I didn't have a bandage or dressing big enough to cover it and didn't much fancy walking to the drugstore on my blistery foot, so I started googling for home remedies for blisters in the hope of finding something I could do to shrink it with what I had on hand.

The only thing I google up that I had in the house was epsom salts. I highly doubted that would work, but soaking my feet sounded nice anyway.  So I soaked my feet in hot water with epsom salts and a drop of iodine, and discovered that the blister was sticking out far less, as though some of the water had drained from it.  However, I didn't feel any stinging when my feet were in the water, so I was pretty sure it hadn't broken open.

Then I went to bed, and slept for 11 hours (I usually sleep 9-10 hours even on non-alarm mornings).  When I woke up, I discovered that the blister was completely empty of water!  However, it hadn't been punctured - the water had either dried up internally or been reabsorbed into my body.  The outer layer of skin was still dead and it seemed like there was still an open wound underneath, but the outer layer was completely stuck to the wound, serving as a very effective moist dressing - which is a bonus since I don't have the materials to make a moist dressing here at home!

My foot stayed like that for a week - the blister didn't fill back up, there was no sign of contamination or infection, it just looked funny - and then one day it became really, really itchy.  I tried to avoid scratching it because I didn't want to damage or contaminate it, but eventually I couldn't resist and scratched it.  The gross dead outer layer of skin came off....revealing fresh, pink new skin underneath, and no hint of open wound!

I've never before had a large blister heal to completion so quickly, and this was by far the largest blister I've ever had!  Next time I get a blister, I'm going straight to soaking it in epsom salts before I even try anything else.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Taking for granted achieved!

With yesterday's legalization of same-sex marriage nation-wide in the US (congratulations, by the way!), I was surprised to see a few people on Twitter suggesting that same-sex marriages had been legalized easily and without any fuss in Canada. 

At first I was shocked that anyone could forget, but then I realized that same-sex marriage was legalized in Ontario 12 years ago.  There are grown-ass adults who would be legitimately unaware of the struggle to get it legalized for the simple reason that they were children when it happened!

Five years ago, I wrote:
One day, in a couple of decades, we will be celebrating the 20th or 25th anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage. I will be in my late 40s, with lines on my face like my father's and salt-and-pepper hair dyed chestnut like my mother's, wearing no-line bifocals as though that little line is the only thing that betrays my age. My co-workers and I (for in my imagined future I'm still in the same workplace with the same co-workers) will sit around the break room reminiscing. Where were you when you first heard? Who was the first same-sex married couple you knew? When was your first big gay wedding? Newspapers will tell the story of how this all came about, track down the court justices and the Michaels and do "Where are they now?" profiles. And in our office will be some new hires, kids in their early 20s just out of university, who will look at all this fuss we're making and feel nothing, because for them it will be something that has always been there.
 I'm in my mid-30s, with the lines on my face just beginning to form and enough salt in my pepper that I'm aware of it but not enough that I'm dyeing it. My glasses are still monofocals.  I'm not chitchatting with my co-workers in the break room because I work at home, and I still haven't had the opportunity to attend a big gay wedding.  But already, 10 years earlier than I estimated, there are people who are unaware of the fuss and feel that same-sex marriage has always been there!

Happy Pride, everyone!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

All change is not created equal.

My various investigations into resilience tend to talk about change an awful lot, often framing people as either embracing change or being change-averse, and talking about how to become more open to change.

And, analyzing my own life, I realized that this is a huge fallacy.  Change is not a monolith.  I (and, I assume, others) embrace change when it's a good change, but want to avoid it when it's a bad change.

For example, I was (and still am) absolutely thrilled about being given the opportunity to work from home rather than going into the office very day.  But that's not because I like change per se, that's because working from home is in all ways superior to working in the office.

And I was stressed like crazy about having to do without my computer when it was being repaired.  But that's not because I dislike change per se, that's because not having a computer is in all ways inferior to having a computer.

I find I am more resistant to change in many areas as life goes on, but that's not because I'm growing to dislike change in my old age. That's because I've been able to figure out how to make more and more areas of my life optimal, so change would make them worse, whereas before I was able to make those areas of life optimal, change would simply make them different.

For example, when I lived in one of the many 1970s highrises in my neighbourhood, with no dishwasher and the laundry in the basement and a small silverfish invasion every spring and fall, I wouldn't have been disappointed if I'd had to change apartments, because there was clear room for improvement and many comparable buildings (with room for better to exist). But then when I moved to my current apartment, which was brand new when I moved in and had all the appliances, much better management and construction, and averaged only one bug a year, I would have been distraught about having to move because there wasn't, to my knowledge or within the reach of my research, anything comparable in existence. (Now there is, but there wasn't for several years after I moved in.)

This has nothing to do with my attitudes about change itself, but rather with the fact that leaving good housing for mediocre housing is different from leaving mediocre housing for other mediocre housing.

My inner conspiracy theorist wonders if this "openness to change" thing is a conspiracy. I'm sure most people welcome change when it's an improvement and dread it when it makes things worse.  But by presenting "openness to change" as a virtue, perhaps the powers that be are trying to shame or embarrass people into speaking up against changes that will make our lives worse?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Things They Should Study: does the success or failure of clothing retailers correlate with specific fashion trends?

A few months ago, they closed the Smart Set in my neighbourhood.  I was disappointed, because some of my very favourite shirts have come from Smart Set.

But, at the same time, I haven't bought anything from them in years.  They discontinued the specific style of shirts that's my very favourite, and, for the past couple of years, haven't had anything in colours that are flattering on me.

This came to mind when I saw that Gap is closing 25% of its North American stores.  Again, some of my favourite pieces are from Gap, but at the same time I haven't bought anything from them in years because they haven't had styles and colours that are flattering on me.

In general, the trends of the past few years have been unflattering on me, so I haven't bought nearly as many clothes as I did in previous years.  I don't feel enthusiastic about anything I see in stores, I don't feel moved to stock up on anything, and I keep reading about how clothing retail is dying.

It would be interesting to study this on a broader level and see if there is a correlation between specific fashion trends and the success or failure of clothing retail businesses.  You'd have to control for overall economic conditions, which should be fairly straightforwards (is clothing retail growing/shrinking faster than the overall economy?) You might also be able to control for other factors (such as the growth of online shopping) by comparing men's and women's clothing retail. Trends aren't the same for both genders, so if, for example, women's retail slows down significantly compared to men's when baggy white shirts are in style for women, then we'd have evidence suggesting that baggy white shirts are bad for women's clothing retail.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Things They Should Invent: train PSWs in feminine facial hair removal techniques

A while back, I came up with the idea that nursing homes should provide free esthetics services so female patients don't have to deal with the indignity of facial hair.

Today, my shower gave me a far simpler idea: PSWs should be trained in hair removal methods that are appropriate for women's facial hair.

By general societal standards, removing facial hair is seen as more optional for men than for women. PSWs are trained in the more-optional removal of men's facial hair, so they should also be trained in the more-mandatory removal of women's facial hair.

As we know from our own firsthand experiences, tweezing out your yucky chin hairs is more of an everyday personal grooming thing that you do in your own bathroom rather than a specialized beauty treatment for which you go to a beautician.  Therefore, it should be treated as such and be part of the patient's everyday personal care done by their PSWs.  (Yes, beauticians do provide more hardcore facial hair removal services.  Barbers will also shave clients if asked, but male patients get shaved by PSWs rather than having to pay to go down to the hairdresser.)

Some will argue that PSWs are already trained in shaving and that's a hair removal method.  But it's not the a correct, appropriate, suitable method for women's facial hair. Shaving results in same-day regrowth and stubble (especially on hairier-than-average people - and any woman with facial hair is hairier than average), which means that the socially-inappropriate facial hair problem will return before the end of the day.  Removing the hair at the root means the removal will last several days and grow back more gently and less visibly, allowing the patient to retain her dignity for longer.

And that's what this really is - a question of dignity.  Tweezing or threading or otherwise removing the hair at the root spares female patients the indignity of facial hair and the indignity of suffering through the masculine-marked process of having their face shaved. PSWs are trained to retain as much as patients' dignity as possible when bathing them, dressing them, toileting them, feeding them, moving them - every single area of daily life.  This should include the removal of unsightly facial hair.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Things They Should Invent: cellular network detection device

My cellphone uses both the Rogers and Fido networks. The other day I was involved in a long texting conversation while walking around the neighbourhood doing my errands, and I noticed that in certain places I got the Rogers network but not the Fido network, and in other places I got the Fido network but not the Rogers network.

This makes me think that it might be possible for there to be certain dead zones for a particular cell phone provider even within an area that's supposed to get service from them.  Which could be an annoyance if you switch providers only to find that you can't get service in your apartment or in your office.

Proposed solution: some kind of a device that can tell you which cellular networks can be picked up in a particular place.  You carry it around, it detects networks, and it tells you which networks it detects.

These devices could be rented out by cellphone retailers for a reasonable price per day. I'm sure potential customers would be quite happy to pay a reasonable amount to confirm that a signal is available right where they need it, and I'm sure cellphone providers who try to compete on signal quality would be happy to empower potential customers to confirm the quality of their signal.

Currently, if you look on cellphone providers' websites to see where their signal is available, they give a rough geographical map. Since I live in the geographical centre of Toronto, all providers claim to provide service in my neighbourhood.  Nevertheless, there are pockets where the Rogers signal can't reach, and pockets where the Fido signal can't reach, which suggests that there may well be pockets where other signals can't reach.  Cell providers can't reasonably be expected to provide a map of all these pockets, but surely they could provide us with a device that would let us detect them ourselves.

Maybe someone could even make an app that would do this?

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Could working-class women dress themselves when upper-class women couldn't?

At certain points in Western history, aristocratic women didn't dress themselves.  They had their maids help them.  Based on what I've absorbed from the ether, they weren't necessarily able to dress themselves either, because of the design and complexity of the clothes.

For example, there's a scene in Downton where Lady Mary is going away for a weekend tryst, and she and Anna are looking through her wardrobe making sure that everything she packs is something she can put on all by herself (implying that she can't dress herself in all her clothes independently).  And this is in the 1920s when clothes were easier - in the Edwardian and Victorian eras, with corsets and crinolines and everything, it would be even more difficult to dress oneself.

I also recently read a book that mentioned that Edwardian upper-class ladies would wear tea gowns in the afternoons because that's when they met with their lovers, and tea gowns were something that a lady could put back on herself (implying that she's not able to put on her other styles of dresses herself).

This makes me wonder about the situation for working-class women.  Even if their dresses are more practical, the maids on Downton still have corsets and petticoats before the 1920s.  (In fact, there was a brief period where the aristocrats were wearing the newer, more comfortable uncorseted dresses, but the maids - who had to do actual physical labour - were still in the old corseted dresses!)  Could they dress themselves, or did they have to help each other dress?  What about Daisy, who woke up before anyone else in the house?  What about Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore?  Did one of their subordinates see them in their underthings every morning?  What if a working-class woman lived alone?  If a household consisted of just husband and wife, did he have to learn how to do up a corset?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Books read in May 2015


1. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
2. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 
3. This is Improbable Too by Marc Abrahams
4. The Brain's Way of Healing by Norman Doidge
5. The Myth of Alzheimer's by Peter J. White house with Daniel George 
6. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman 
7. Gilgamesh (Stephen Mitchell version)


1. Naked in Death
2. Glory in Death 

Teach me about the connotations of Orange County, California in the 1980s

When I was in elementary school (between 1985 and 1991),  this story-teller sort of guy came to our school and told us some stories.  When it came time to tell us the last story, he said we could choose between two: one was about a boy and his pond, and the other was about a big-city thief.  His tone and delivery suggested that the boy and his pond story was idyllic (and, by extension, boring) and the big-city thief story was exciting. My schoolmates overwhelmingly voted for the story about the thief, so he told us that story.

Afterwards, there was Q&A session, and someone asked him if anyone actually asked to hear the story of the boy and his pond, and he replied that it had happened once, in Orange County, California. His tone and delivery suggested that if you knew anything about Orange County, California, you'd understand why this was and perhaps find it humorous.

Of course, as an elementary school student in southern Ontario, I didn't know anything about Orange County, California.  In fact, I still don't.  This memory came back to me in the shower this morning so I've been doing some googling, and I still can't figure out any characteristics of Orange County that would make it clear why students there in the 1980s would prefer to hear a story about a boy and his pond. 

Anyone have any insight?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The international exit sign

I first saw this kind of sign in Frankfurt Airport in 1998.  I had just gotten off long flight and badly had to pee.  In my condition, I thought the sign pointed to the washrooms.  After all, where else would a person possibly want to run to?  I followed the arrows, running nearly as fast as the figure in the sign, and eventually found some washrooms, to my great relief! It wasn't until several days later, when I saw the sign in a context where it was clearly pointing to the exit and not the washrooms, that I realized what it meant.

They recently installed this sign in my apartment building, replacing the red EXIT signs that are more commonly used in North America.

And every time I see it, I feel like I have to pee.

Friday, May 29, 2015


Whistling is hard, at least compared with other ways of producing potentially-musical noise such as humming or singing or just opening your mouth and vocalizing. It takes more skill and experience and precision to produce the intended note than it does with humming or singing.

Whistling is also non-intuitive compared with other ways of producing potentially-musical noise.  When you see a pre-verbal baby vocalizing, you can see how a person might stumble upon humming or singing, but you can't see whistling just happening by accident.

And yet somehow, someone in human history figured out how to whistle.  And thought it was worth the trouble as opposed to humming or singing.  And, somehow, the idea caught on and now it's something that everyone is at least aware of if not capable of doing. (Unless it's cultural?  A quick google for whether there are any cultures that don't have whistling only turns up cultures where whistling plays a key role.)

And not only does whistling persist on a macro level, it also persists on an individual level.  There are people who, when they have a tune in their head that they want to express, opt to whistle it out instead of humming or singing or going "dodo dodo dooo".

I can't fathom why whistling is so normalized or why a person would opt to whistle rather than hum their current earworm, but it is an interesting cultural phenomenon.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The mystery of the Yonge Eglinton haters

The "density creeps" who have been in the news lately remind me of one of the mysteries of Yonge & Eglinton: people who deliberately move here and then complain that the neighbourhood has characteristics that it has had since long before they moved here.

In the density creeps story, that characteristic is density.  from the proposed development site are highrise buildings, which are part of the highrise cluster that was built in the 1970s, 20 years before the density creeps moved here.  There are also four 4-storey apartment buildings that appear architecturally to date back to the 1950s on that one block alone.

In short, the kind of density they decry, along with the attendant impact on property values and population demographics, were well-established in the neighbourhood long before they even arrived.

(Which makes me want to flag a lot of the commentary on this story with #JournalismWanted - many commentators seem to be taking the density creeps at their word that this new development is somehow significantly denser or significantly cheaper than the established neighbourhood, when this allegation could be disproven with a simple google, or by going to the site (conveniently located just 4 blocks north of Eglinton subway station!) and taking a quick look around.)

But the density creeps aren't the only ones I've seen doing this.  Far more frequently than you'd expect, mostly on the internet but sometimes just walking down the street, I hear people who live here and, based on demographics, appear to have moved here recently and to have had a choice in the matter (i.e. they're old enough and employed enough to live independently of their parents, but young enough that they definitely didn't move here before the 21st century) complain about things like density or highrises or chain stores or yuppies - things that have all been here since before the 21st century, and things whose presence you can easily detect by walking down the street.  If you don't like those things, you can see that the neighbourhood isn't for you the moment you emerge from the subway.

The other thing is, this isn't the cheapest neighbourhood.  If you want lower density or lowrises or fewer chain stores or fewer yuppies, there are other neighbourhoods that meet those characteristics and are cheaper to live in. So what are they doing here?

Despite the criticism from some quarters, this isn't the worst neighbourhood in Toronto.  We're generally closer to the top than to the bottom for indicators such as amenities, services, accessibility, quality of schools, quality of housing stock, infrastructure, lower crime rates, etc. 

I wonder if people in neighbourhoods that are worse in all these areas complain as much as the residents of Yonge & Eg, who, by all appearances, could totally choose to live elsewhere?