Friday, July 22, 2016

Brilliant Ideas that will Never Work: murder-proof knife

While writing my previous blog post, I came up with an idea for a knife that can't be used as a murder weapon.

If the blade of the knife touches something that is approximately 37 degrees celsius (i.e. the temperature of the human body), the blade retracts, making it impossible to use it to cut or stab anything.

We already have thermometers with protruding metal probes that detect the temperature of the thing they're touching (e.g. meat thermometers). We already have switches that switch on and off when the thermometer they're attached to crosses a certain threshold (i.e. thermostats). We already have knives with blades that retract. So combine all this technology to make a knife whose blade retracts when it touches something at a temperature near 37 degrees.

Food shouldn't be near 37 degrees, at least not for any significant amount of time.  It should either be stored below 4 degrees or cooked above 60 degrees. If the food you're trying to prepare is 37 degrees, it needs to be either heated up or cooled down.

If you're using the knife for something other than food preparation, the thing you're cutting is probably room temperature.  Room temperature is about 20 degrees, and 37 degrees is uncomfortably hot for ambient temperature. If the ambient temperature is 37 degrees, you really should move to somewhere cooler before you get heatstroke.

I don't deny the possibility that there might be some specialized activities beyond the scope of my imagination that legitimately require the use of a knife at 37 degrees celsius. And they can use a specialized, non-murder-proof knife for those specialized activities. But for ordinary household use, knives could be made murder-proof.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

US gun money braindump

With the various US shootings in the news and a constant flow of information about how gun industry money is influencing US politics, my shower gave me the early foundations of an idea to disrupt the cycle.

I know I'm a foreigner and therefore this isn't my business at all, but it is an idea I haven't seen elsewhere, so I'm posting it in case it's useful to anyone.

We know that the pro-gun people's argument for having guns is that they need them for self-defence and/or they're used for perfectly valid sporting pursuits.

We know that there's a lot of firearm manufacturer money spent lobbying against any restrictions on owning or acquiring firearms.

My first idea to disrupt this was to make firearm manufacturers pay a fine whenever a product they make is used as a murder weapon.  This is intended to disincentivize manufacturers from lobbying against firearms restrictions, and possibly incentivize them to produce products that make mass murder less easy.

But, because of all this lobbying money, any law specifically targeting firearm manufacturers is unlikely to pass.

So my next idea was to be big and bold: all manufacturers of all products must pay a fine whenever a product they manufacture is used as a murder weapon.

Q: But wouldn't this result in all kinds of harm to all kinds of random businesses (many of whose products are far more vital and far less profitable than firearms)?

A: To mitigate that, I propose a progressive fine structure.  The fine to be paid is a percentage of the company's revenues (not profits, because those can be hidden with accounting).  It starts out as an extremely small percentage (like 0.01%), and that percentage increases (perhaps even doubles) with every subsequent murder. (I can make an argument for the percentage increasing every time there's a murder with any of the company's products, or for each individual product having its own tally.)  So if you're a manufacturer of cosmetics and one very resourceful person comes up with a way to murder someone using a tube of mascara, you have to pay a tiny fine. But if you're a manufacturer of firearms or ammunition and someone murders 50 people all at once with one of your products, you're going to be in serious financial trouble.  (And, of course if you're a manufacturer of cosmetics and someone murders 50 people all at once with one of your products, you're going to be in serious financial trouble too.)

Q: But why are you just focusing on murder? All kinds of people are shot in alleged self-defence or in accidents too, not to mention all the people who are injured, some of them seriously!

A: All these things are important too, and I have no objection to including them if it can be made workable. My thinking in focusing on murder is that it's far more difficult to argue with. By making policy that focuses strictly on murder weapons, you're not questioning the go-to arguments of self-defence or culturally-considered-legitimate sporting pursuits. You're not trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens or regular folks.  You are, in fact, agreeing with all the standard arguments about why guns should be allowed. It's just the bizarre, exceptional case of murderers that you're addressing - people who use the guns for the express purpose of going out to kill people.

Q: Wouldn't the focus on murder make people (perhaps with firearm-industry-provided lawyers) attempt to defend themselves with claims of self-defence or accidents?

A: Since murder is already a separate crime with a more severe sentence, people are already incentivized to do that. I don't know whether or not extra lawyering could make a difference.

Q: Why manufacturers? Why not retailers?

A: I have no objection to including retailers too. I'm focusing on manufacturers because I have the impression that that's where the lobbying money is coming from.

Q: So what do you expect manufacturers to actually do?

A: Primarily, to stop lobbying against various proposed legislation intended to stop guns from getting into the hands of dangerous people.

But they could perhaps also stop manufacturing guns that make it so easy to kill so many people.  For example, they could make guns that fire fewer rounds per minute, or that require the user to squeeze the trigger each time they want to fire a round rather than holding it down. I've seen mentions of certain types of ammunition being more lethal than others, so ammunition manufacturers could probably use that information to make ammunition that's less lethal. Perhaps they might also have the option of providing their products wholesale only to retailers with stricter security checks.

And, of course, they always have the option of doing nothing and bearing the risk of a massive fine that would put them out of business if someone should choose to use their products for mass murder.

Q: And what about manufacturers of other products who get caught up in this? What do you expect them to actually do?

A: If their products are being used as murder weapons on the same order of magnitude as guns, perhaps it would be a good thing for them to be incentivized to make these products less lethal!

Q: Might this disincentivize foreign companies from making their products available in the US?

A: It might, I don't know. Maybe if it does, and maybe if there's enough demand for the product in question, it could also boost the US manufacturing sector.

Q: And how do you propose getting this kind of legislation introduced when it's so obviously targeting firearms?

A: Wait until someone is murdered with an ordinary object that isn't intended as a weapon. Sensationalize the situation in the media, cite other historical cases of people being murdered with ordinary household objects that aren't intended as a weapon, and make it sound vitally important to introduce safety measures so ordinary household objects can't be used as murder weapons. Don't mention firearms at all.  Cars have had more and more safety measures introduced over the years, at least some of which have been required by law. Use the same spirit for everything, but without (at least initially) presuming to dictate what exactly the safety measures should be.  This is a country that managed to ban Kinder Eggs FFS - surely they can pass some anti-murder-weapon legislation if no one mentions the G word.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Things They Should Study: what would election outcomes look like if votes were weighted by how much people are affected?

I've occasionally seen people say they're voting for various buffoonish political candidates for amusement purposes, because they want to see what shenanigans that candidate will get up to next.

When I hear this, I think what a privileged position these people must be in, to be so unaffected by politics that they can vote solely on the grounds of amusement.

In the shower one day, I had the idea of discouraging those who are so completely unaffected by politics from voting, which evolved into a series of other idea of giving extra votes to people who are more affected, or weighting votes by how affected people are.

Of course, this is all completely unfeasible in reality, and I'm in no way arguing or hinting that it should actually be done.  Voting is a capital-R Right, and it would be wholly inappropriate to argue for reducing some people's rights because they're thought to need them less. (That's the stated reasoning oppressors used to prevent people from having voting rights in the first place.)

But it would be super interesting to study as a what-if scenario.  What would the outcomes of elections look like if people's votes were weighted by how greatly they're affected by the policies of that level of government?

Another problem would be that weighing how greatly people are affected is highly subjective, with different people having different opinions about which factors should be weighted most heavily.  But since this is a what-if scenario anyway, why not calculate the outcome for every arguable definition of "greatly affected"?  What would election outcomes look like if people's votes were weighted by how much taxes the government's policies would cost them or save them? What if votes were weighted by how much people's employment and livelihood were affected? What if it they were weighted by how dependent you are on that government's policies for health care, or education, or transportation?

It might also be possible in certain cases to determine if there is a subset of people who are voting "wrong", by which I mean that the thing that affects them the most is the accessibility of widgets, but they're voting for the party that's trying to ban widgets. (Which would get into the question of whether they're voting "wrong" on purpose for selfless purposes because they believe other issues are more important than access to widgets, or if they're voting "wrong" out of ignorance.)

In any case, it would be terribly interesting to study as a "what if?", and might also end up being somehow informative. But it would have to be done in a way that makes it clear that weighting votes isn't something that actually should  be done.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

New Rules: Natural Consequences Edition XI

16. Some people seem to be under the impression that people can choose their feelings. They then go and give advice to others on that assumption.

I suppose it might be possible that some people can choose their feelings, but not everyone can. So advice to choose to feel a certain way is completely useless to someone who can't choose their feelings.

Therefore, people who give advice on the assumption that everyone can choose their feelings to people who can't choose their feelings lose the ability to choose their feelings until the issue on which they were giving advice is solved. Sentences to be served consecutively.

Actually, let's extend this: anyone who gives advice that assumes that the advisee has skills or resources that they don't actually have is denied use of those skills or resources (or their own equivalent) until such time as the issue is solved. Sentences to be served consecutively.

If the advisor acknowledges in their advice that the advisee may not actually have the skills or  resources and they're just throwing out ideas until something sticks, that's fine, no consequences necessary. But if the advisor takes as a given that the advisee clearly has those things and doesn't even consider the possibility that they aren't available, the advisor is denied the use of those things or their equivalent in the advisor's own life.

For example: "Does your university have a student health clinic? If they do, that would probably be a good starting point" is acceptable.

But if you say "Just go to the student health clinic!" when the advisee's university doesn't have one, you are not allowed access to your primary medical care until the advisee's health issue is resolved.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Things I did invent!

For years and years, I've been telling the universe to invent things for me. This week I shut up and invented the things for myself!

1. Since I discovered the Toronto Fire Active Incidents page years ago, I've gotten in the habit of checking it whenever I hear a siren, just to see what's going on. However, not all sirens are the fire department.  So I was going to write a Things They Should Invent that someone should merge the Toronto Fire Calls map and the Toronto Police Calls map (as well as ambulance data, if it is available) into a single "What's that siren?" map.

Making a map isn't in my immediate skill set, but people who are smarter than I am have already turned these data streams into twitter feeds. So I made my very first twitter list, which shows all police and fire calls in near-real time (there's about a 5 minute delay). So now when I hear a siren, I just pull up my list and within moments the answer to my question will appear.

(Although if anyone is feeling ambitious or creative, I still think a map would be a better interface).

2. There was some visible sediment in the reservoir of my coffee maker.  Neither running vinegar through the machine nor rinsing it out would budge it, so I figured it needed to be scrubbed. Unfortunately, since it's only a 4-cup coffee maker, the reservoir is small enough that I can just barely get my hand in and couldn't move it around in the way I needed to to scrub the sediment. A bottle brush wasn't soft enough, and that sponge-on-a-stick thing that's like a bottle brush but with a sponge was too bulky. I thought a q-tip would be about the right size and texture, but I couldn't get my hand in properly to manipulate it the way it needed to be manipulated.

I was going to write a Things They Should Invent of extra-long q-tips for these kinds of cleaning challenges, but then I had an inspiration:

I took a cotton ball (the kind you use to remove makeup or nail polish), stuck it on the end of a fork like it's a meatball, and used that to scrub the inside of the coffee maker reservoir.  The cotton was the right texture, the fork gives it the kind of stiff support you need for scrubbing, and the fork was long enough that I could manipulate the movements of the cotton fully because my hand could be outside the reservoir. The whole thing was perfectly clean in about 20 seconds!

I've never before been able to actually make one of my Things They Should Invent, and this week I made two in one week!

Saturday, July 09, 2016

How to make a manual for new homes

I previously came up with the idea that developers should provide a user manual for new homes.  Today my shower gave me an idea for how that could be achieved effectively.

First of all, the manual wouldn't be an actual static manual, it would be a constantly-updated website, perhaps with a login to limit it to residents of the development if such a thing is thought to be necessary.

Homeowners are asked to report any problems they have to the developer, and the developer will provide free repairs/resolutions/instructions on preventive maintenance required to the first person to report each problem in exchange for being permitted to document it for the manual. 

The homeowner's privacy is protected throughout the process.  While the repair is photographed and videoed so the process can be fully documented, the homeowner doesn't appear in the photos or videos, and the homeowner can remove any identifying items and tidy the area before the documentation people come in.

Since only the first person to report the problem gets the free resolution, the cost to the developer wouldn't be very much, relatively speaking. It would be no more than the total maintenance cost of one unit over its lifetime (minus any repeated maintenance activities), and would probably turn out to be less because not all homeowners would be interested in participating and it's possible that no one would bother to call the developer for certain very basic maintenance activities (e.g. changing a lightbulb).  Given that each development has many units (my condo has nearly 400), and that developers tend to make multiple similar developments (many aspects of my condo operate the same as my apartment, which was built by the same developer), this is negligible compared with the number of customers served.

On top of that, to properly document a procedure with photos and videos you have to actually carry out the procedure.  So developing the manual this way wouldn't cost anything more than staging it for the cameras, and would save the time and effort of planning what should go into the manual, because the natural course of the homeowners' maintenance problems would make that decision for them.

This would be an excellent way for a developer to make customers feel like they're being taken care of, and would make that developer particularly attractive to first-time buyers who are perfectly positioned to start developing brand loyalty.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Things They Should Invent: dog-in-car thermometer

An article about a law in Massachusetts that would allow people to break into hot cars to rescue pets turned up in my social media, and I was surprised to see some commenters complaining about this law. Their complaint was that passers-by might not realize when a dog is perfectly safe and comfortable in an air-conditioned car and break windows unnecessarily.

This made me think of a simple solution: a thermometer inside the car, positioned in such a way that it's easily visible to passers-by through the window.  That way anyone who's concerned about the dog can easily check the temperature. If it's safe, the window won't be broken unnecessarily. If it's dangerous, the dog will be rescued.

If someone wanted to manufacture this as a new product distinctive from ordinary thermometers, they could make thermometers marked with the temperature range that's safe for dogs (and humans), similar to how some fridge thermometers have coloured markings showing the temperature range that's safe for food storage.

They could also enhance the simple window thermometer with smartphone integration.  If the temperature in the car exceeds a certain threshold or rises at a certain rate, you get an alert on your phone telling you that the temperature in the car is becoming unsafe.

Now, I have heard some people say that is absolutely always 100% of the time unsafe to leave a dog in the car no matter what the conditions, and, since I don't have a car, I've never had to become knowledgeable enough to confirm or refute that statement myself.  But the fact remains that there are people who do think it can be safe.  If there was a visible thermometer in the car along with the dog, it would confirm or refute whatever dog owners or car owners or concerned passers-by or meddling internet people might believe about the safety of the situation.  Then we could all take comfort in the fact that passers-by and owners with smartphones will be immediately alerted when dogs are unsafe, and dogs who are safe can be left to enjoy the musical stylings of Steely Dan in peace.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Analogy for "can't you take a joke?"

Some people say cruel things to others and if called out on it say "Can't you take a joke?"

Some people think "a good sense of humour" means "laughs at every one of my attempts to make a joke, no matter how pathetic", and accuse those who don't laugh at their unfunny attempts at humour of having a bad sense of humour.

Today my shower gave me an (unfortunately phallocentric) analogy for both these phenomena:

It's like kicking your partner in the balls while you're having sex, and then accusing them of being impotent or bad at sex when this doesn't give them an orgasm.

Being good at sex, like being good at humour, requires anticipating and meeting the other person's needs. If what you're doing doesn't get the results you're going for - and, especially, if what you're doing causes unwanted pain - you're the one who's doing it wrong, not them.

And even if there have been some people in human history who laughed at your unfunny attempts at humour, the fact still remains that if the attempt at humour doesn't work for this particular audience, you're the one who's doing it wrong.  Just like how, even though under Rule 34 there is probably someone somewhere in the depths of the internet who gets off on being kicked in the balls, the fact remains that if you kick your partner in the balls and they double over in pain instead of having an orgasm, you're the one who's doing it wrong.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Things They Should Invent: vacuum bags with insecticide inside

This post contains non-graphic descriptions of killing household pests from a phobic point of view.

My severe phobia of bugs means that it is necessary for any bugs in my home to be eliminated, but renders me too squeamish to touch them directly or indirectly.  So my standard approach is to spray the bug with Raid or something similar to kill it, then to vacuum up the corpse.  However, sometimes circumstances make it impossible to spray it with Raid first (if it's on the ceiling, if it's flying around, if I'm startled and the vacuum is closer than the Raid), so I end up vacuuming a live bug.

The internet tells me that the trauma of being vacuumed will kill a bug, and the internet tells me that the trauma of being vacuumed won't kill a bug.  So, as a precautionary measure, if I vacuum a live bug, I spray Raid down the vacuum after it, then block the opening to the vacuum for 24 hours. I've been doing this for 13 years, and have yet to see any evidence that the bugs survive the process.

But it occurred to me in the shower that the makers of vacuum bags could help people like me by selling vacuum bags with insecticide on the inside.  If a bug gets vacuumed up, it is automatically poisoned to death.

In addition to helping people who vacuum up bugs as part of their home pest control approach, this would also help regular people by killing things like bedbugs, fleas, dust mites etc. It would make sure that they get killed in the natural course of housework, resulting in a healthier living environment for everyone.  They could also add antibacterials and germicide to help kill everything before it escapes the vacuum bag.

Some might object to the introduction of additional poisonous chemicals into the household.  However, putting the insecticides inside the vacuum bag would reduce the need to spray them around the home, so they're less likely to end up in the air you breathe or in your food.  On top of that, they can totally continue to sell non-insecticide vacuum bags for people who aren't interested in using their vacuum as a bug-killing machine.

We already have the precedent of introducing not-strictly-necessary chemicals into household cleaning products for psychological purposes.  For example, anti-bacterial toilet cleaners are a thing that exists, even though everyone is going to treat even a freshly-cleaned toilet as a contaminated surface anyway.  So why not give us the option of treated vacuum bags, and address the psychological needs of people with one of the most common phobias?  I'd even gladly pay extra for it!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Books read in June 2016


1. In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers
2. Not in Front of the Corgis: Secrets of Life Behind the Royal Curtains by Brian Hoey
3. Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Brockmole, Gaynor, Holland, Jefferson, Kerrigan, Robson, Williams, Willig and Webb
4. Le Capital au XXIe siècle by Thomas Piketty


1. New York to Dallas
2. Chaos in Death
3. Celebrity in Death
4. Delusion in Death

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Research/Journalism Wanted: what's up with the people who didn't see it coming?

This post is about the information that reaches people (including me) organically, without them making any effort to find it, as opposed to the full set of all information available.  While reading this, you may find yourself thinking "But you don't have all the information! You're just talking about the subset of information that reached you organically!" Yes, and that is exactly what this post is about.

In the wake of Brexit, my twitter feed has been showing me examples of people who voted Leave but were unaware of the consequences. I was rather surprised by this, because I was aware of those same consequences, and I haven't even been actively following the issue!  The information reached me with no effort on my part (and, in fact, despite my having mentally categorized it as To Disregard), but it didn't reach people who actually got to vote in this referendum, and would have voted differently if they'd had this information.

Someone should do research and/or journalism about these people. What did they think was going to happen? Where did they get that idea from? Were they given incorrect information, or just not given all the correct information they needed? Why didn't the information they missed reach them?

And, perhaps most importantly, how close did they the information get to reaching them? Was a friend of a friend on a social network posting the information they needed? Was it in the newspaper they read but on a boring page they just skimmed over?  Or were they nowhere near it and would have needed to drastically revamp their media consumption practices and/or voting research to have reached it.

After interviewing as many of the people who didn't see it coming as possible, the researchers/journalists should publish the results, highlighting any patterns they noticed.  This would serve two purposes: helping regular people see information consumption patterns that correlate with being less informed than one would like, and helping people who are trying to spread information or raise awareness see how to reach the people who would like to be more informed but don't even know it yet.

As a random made-up example, suppose 68% of the people who were misinformed got their incorrect information from their hairdresser. Then people would know that you should question/snopes/factcheck political information provided by your hairdresser, no matter how brilliant she is about doing your hair.  Or, suppose 68% of people who didn't get the information they wanted were two degrees of social media separation from that information. Knowing that, people might retweet links to political information that they normally wouldn't retweet because they think it's glaringly obvious.

And this isn't just a Brexit thing. Similar postmortems should be conducted for all elections, and for any other undertaking where they can find a significant number of people who didn't see it coming.  For Brexit we're hearing the morning after about the people who didn't see it coming, but the turnaround isn't always this fast. They should follow up after six months or a year, find people who didn't see it coming, and figure out why.

There's something wrong when the desired information doesn't reach people who will be voting in a referendum, even though that same information organically reached a random foreigner who is deliberately disregarding information on the issue. Investigating exactly how this happened is probably the first step to making the problem go away.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Things They Should Invent: use hospital volunteers to eliminate the need for patients to have support people

I recently blogged about the problem of the medical system requiring patients to provide their own support people.  In the comments of that post, I realized the solution: use existing hospital volunteer programs to provide support people for patients who don't have their own.

Many, if not most, if not all hospitals already have volunteer programs, complete with established recruitment, screening and training mechanisms, and one or more people whose whole job is to coordinate volunteers and generally make all this happen. They have a whole existing network and infrastructure for finding people who are able and willing to do non-medical tasks in a medical setting at no cost, and they do this every single day as an intrinsic part of the daily operations of the hospital.

Patients don't have anything like this at their disposal. Most people spend only a minute fraction of their lives receiving medical care, so their lives and their networks are not set up to find someone to fill this need.  Some people may well have someone who is able and willing and available, but that's really a fluke convergence of factors and in no way a sound basis for policy.

For the hospital to wash their hands of providing a helper and leave it entirely up to the patient fall under this kind of assholic risk-shifty behaviour we've been trying to coin a good name for.

At this point, some people are probably thinking "But you can't just have some random taking drugged patients home! They could hurt them or abduct them!"  But hospitals already have screening mechanisms for people who work directly with vulnerable patients, as evidenced by the existence of baby cuddling programs. There have been cases of people trying to abduct newborns from hospitals, so the hospital must have a way to screen these volunteers for trustworthiness.  And, again, the hospital, which does this all the time, would most likely have better screening mechanisms than a desperate patient.

And some people are probably thinking "But not all medical procedures are performed in hospitals - some of them are performed in clinics or doctors' offices."  I have three thoughts about that. First, even if hospital volunteers were just used for procedures done in hospitals, that would be an improvement over the status quo of every patient having to find a support person or they can't get their procedure. Second, some doctors and clinics are associated with a certain hospital, so that hospital's volunteers could help those doctors and clinics. Third, they could set up a volunteer program to take care of this need (and any others where volunteers might be helpful) in non-hospital medical contexts. Perhaps this could be done at the LHIN level, by hiring an experienced hospital volunteer coordinator to set up the program.

Of course, there's also the question of whether this should actually be unpaid labour. And I certainly have no objection to making this (and other volunteer duties) a paid role, and being cared for at every step of the process by fully trained, well-paid professionals.  However, the current status quo is that patients are being left to find their own volunteers, and a significant improvement over that status quo would be to use existing volunteer infrastructure rather than leaving patients at the mercy of the vagaries of their personal networks.  People who need medical care don't have time to wait until the government can be convinced to create more jobs.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Warning: LinkedIn could machine translate your profile without your permission!

I was shocked to receive an email from LinkedIn cheerfully announcing "We have translated parts of your public profile into German!"

This is a major problem for me for two reasons: because it's machine translation, and because it's German.

Machine translation is a problem because I'm a translator. The presence of anything that sounds like machine translation in my profile is harmful to my professional credibility, because it makes it look like I can't translate and/or can't judge what constitutes good translation.

German is a problem because I've never worked professionally in German. My professional experience is in the domestic official languages market, so if I were to have another language in my profile, it should be French.

(The French isn't already there because I'm not actively networking, so I maintain a very minimal LinkedIn profile - just enough information for people who already know me to distinguish me from my doppelnamers.)

My bare-bones English-only profile makes me look like an Anglophone who isn't actively using LinkedIn. Many multilingual people who don't make full use of LinkedIn have unilingual profiles, so it doesn't parse as significant. But an English and German profile makes me look like someone who is actively seeking work in English and German, but considers French not sufficiently relevant to bother with.  That would be off-putting to people looking for the kind of French-English translation that is my bread and butter! An English-German profile marks me as irrelevant to the official languages market before you even look at the content of the profile, while the content of the profile renders me irrelevant to any non-desperate client on the English-German market.

I'm fully aware of the argument for having a fully fleshed-out multilingual profile, and I made a deliberate choice not to do so at this time.  However, I did not make a deliberate choice to have a machine-translated profile or to have an English-German profile, and it's assholic of LinkedIn to impose that on me.  That would be like if they noticed that I don't have a photo in my profile, so they did a google image search for my name and inserted the first result, or if they noticed that I haven't put where I went to high school so they populated that field with data scraped from Only this is worse, because people may well evaluate a translator's translation skills based on the quality of the translation in her profile.

If LinkedIn does in fact have German-speaking users who want to access English-language profiles via machine translation, the option to machine translated should appear on their interface, like it does (to varying degrees of success) with Facebook and Twitter.  They should see my profile as I wrote it, with a little "Translate into German" link that they can click on, making it apparent that the German machine translation is the result of their having clicked on this link, not in any way something I wrote.

If LinkedIn has also machine translated your profile, or if you want to prevent it from doing so in the future, you can opt out on your public profile settings page. Specific instructions can be found here.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

What if some people just don't have gender identity?

I recently saw someone on Twitter muse that, upon reflection, they don't feel that they have gender identity as a separate entity from biology and social construction.  (I don't remember who tweeted this and can't seem to find it with the search function, so if it was you do feel free to chime in.)

This was surprising to me, because, upon reflection, it's become glaringly obvious to me (a femme cisgendered woman) that I do have a female gender identity separate from biology and social construction.  (Actually, with reflection, I become less than 100% certain that biology has anything to do with it.)

Obviously, it would be just as assholic for me to suggest or even obliquely hint that this tweeter's self-knowledge is wrong and they do have gender identity as it would for them to suggest or even obliquely hint that my self-knowledge is wrong and I don't have gender identity.  (And I'm sure neither of us is suggesting such a thing.)

But that leads me to a new idea: what if some people just don't have gender identity? And by "don't have a gender identity", I don't just mean people who are agender (although this would certainly encompass agender.) I also mean that, if someone doesn't find it particularly difficult to fulfill the societal expectations corresponding with their biological sex, they might not even give any thought to it. Biological sex and societal expectations and sexual orientation provide enough to keep us occupied, and if the convergence of these factors doesn't cause you any problems, you might not even think about it. (I only thought about it because of my Eddie Izzard fandom.)

At first glance, it might seem bizarre to those of us who do have gender identity for someone not to have such a basic component of self. But there are other basic components of self that not everyone has.

For example, I myself don't have spirituality. There is nothing spiritual in my brain, I don't have spiritual needs, I don't have a soul, it is simply not a part of me.  Many people have spirituality (even some people who aren't religious), but that doesn't mean that I'm failing to perceive my own spirituality, just like my aspirituality doesn't mean that they're wrong about their own spirituality.

When I was a child, I identified with the Catholic religion in which I was raised and was able to live comfortably within the framework of Catholicism without examining it in depth or giving it much thought.  But when I did examine it in depth, as a result of my catechism class's emphasis on faith and later as a result of my parents' arbitrary change to the rules surrounding saying grace, I came to the realization that I simply did not have faith or spirituality in me.

If circumstances hadn't led me into deep self-examination of my professed faith, I never would have realized that I don't have spirituality and would have blithely continued to identify as Catholic and live life accordingly.  Similarly, perhaps there are people who don't have gender identity, but never find themselves in circumstances that lead them to deeply self-examine their gender identity, so they blithely continue to live in the gender they were designated at birth.

Also, if my life circumstances had been different and I lived in a context where having a religion was seen as more necessary to multiple everyday aspects of life, I might have found it easiest to continue the appearance of identifying as Catholic and performing Catholicism even though there was nothing inside me.  And this would be even more true if I had found the theology unobjectionable.  Similarly, people who don't have gender identity and who find the gender they were designated at birth unobjectionable may well find it easiest to simply live in that gender.

And if they've never been in circumstances where they have to self-examine their gender identity, neither they nor anyone else would even know that it isn't actually there.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The emotional labour aspect of self-care

I've been reading this glorious MetaFilter thread about Emotional Labour, and I have many many thoughts about it. I should probably start with my general braindump, but first, a small realization that occurred to me while reading this particular story:
My paradigmatic example of emotional labor was, earlier this year we went to a family wedding out of town, with two day of travel each way and where I was in the wedding so my husband was going to have the 3- and 5-year-old kids for basically three straight days, in a strange city, in a hotel, while attending a panoply of family events all over the city.

So I spent quite a bit of time putting together an actual itinerary (which I don't usually do), which turned out to be six pages long, with all the hotels and event locations and times, and travel distances and times, and likely lunch locations, and parks to stop at in the middle of long driving days so the kids could run around; and then for the in-the-city days, which museums were close enough to walk to, were most likely of interest, opened when, and cost what; where the nearest McDonald's or similar was to each in case the kids refused to eat other food; what parks were nearby in case they were up at 6 a.m. and raising hell; which family members were available during various times in case he needed backup and their phone numbers; what public transit to take where; backup plans and alternatives ... on and on. I made a google map of the locations and loaded it into his phone, printed out the itinerary with maps and also sent it to his e-mail so he could direct-click on museum links.

My husband's looking at the hard copy, paging through, and said, "This is ... thorough."

I burst out, "This is what it's like inside my head ALL THE TIME."

Obviously, taking care of myself is nowhere remotely near as much work or as complex as taking care of two small children in a strange city. But reading this story made me realize that working from home is saving me the equivalent labour of my own self-care.

When I worked in the office, I had to think about what time I needed to get up in time to do yoga in time to drink coffee in time to have a bowel movement in time to have a shower in time to eat breakfast in time to put on makeup in time to make sure my hair is dry in time to get dressed in time to get out the door in time to get onto the subway in time to get to work.  Working at home, I just have to think about waking up in time to turn on my computer at the start of my scheduled workday.

When I worked in the office, I had to think about clothes that were warm enough for the cold morning walk to the subway but wouldn't make me get too sweaty in the subway even if I didn't take my coat off, and would work in my chilly cubicle but also in the overheated mall if I went for errands at lunch but also could work if I went outdoors at lunch, and would also serve me well on the way home for whatever the weather was expected to be in the evening.  Working at home, the vast majority of days I just have to come up with something that will serve me well outdoors for no more than half an hour while I run a single errand. And if it isn't optimal, I'm just a few minutes away from home.

When I worked in the office, I had to anticipate how much of my makeup would disintegrate during the day and carry the necessary touch-up supplies in my purse. I had to anticipate whether my healing eczema would get itchy during the day and, if so, put my hydrocortisone cream in my purse. I had to anticipate whether today's combination of weather and shoes and how much I would have to walk would result in blisters and, if so, put the necessary supplies in my purse. I had to anticipate if my thighs would chafe and, if so, put the necessary supplies in my purse.  (And, in response to the question of why I didn't just keep them in my desk, they keep discontinuing the products that work best for me so I often don't have the option of owning two copies.)  Working at home, I have literally everything I own right here waiting for me whenever I need it.
When I worked in the office, I had to think about which errands needed to be done, if they were best done near the office or near home, and if they were best done at lunch or after work. I had to think about how much I could comfortably carry and whether stuff needed to be refrigerated and what the operating hours of different stores are and what my priorities are if various limitations made it impossible to do everything I needed to do today. Working at home, I can quite easily take multiple trips if necessary or step out for 10 minutes in the middle of my work day if I run out of something. Most often the only planning I need to do is make sure I remember to go to the market on market day.

When I worked in the office, I had to eat something for breakfast that would keep me comfortable and focused until it was time to eat something for lunch that would keep me comfortable and focused until it was time to eat something for dinner. Working at home, I eat whatever I want whenever I feel the need.

Some people reading this are thinking "So what? Most people do this all the time every single day."  Yes, I know. I did it every single day for 10 years. It was basically an extra hour of work I had to put in just to go to work. And now that I don't have to do it, I find life is much easier and I have much more mental energy to focus both on my work and on other aspsects of life.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Things They Should UNinvent: any policy that requires you to have a support person

From a recent Carolyn Hax chat:

Hi, Carolyn. Love your weekly chats! Thanks for all you do! I have to have a (non-emergency but necessary) medical procedure (think a colonoscopy). The facility will not admit me for the procedure unless I am accompanied by someone who will be there for the duration of the procedure and drive me home. I cannot take a cab home, and I cannot arrange for someone to pick me up when I'm ready to go. I'm not married, I don't have kids or other family that could take me, and although I have good friends, none that I feel comfortable asking to take a day off work to sit in an office waiting room with me. So I've repeatedly had to delay the appointment. What do people like me do in this situation? I have a chronic medical condition, and I'm suddenly very depressed about the fact that I have to go through life wondering who is doing to take me to my various appointments. I realize that this is a silly logistical question, but it's really triggered some profound feelings of loneliness and fear, and I'd be interested in your thoughts. Thanks!
This is actually a serious procedural problem in the medical system. The job of the medical system is to take care of you, so it's simply not appropriate for them to require you to bring someone to take care of you. 

You arrive at the doctor's office capable of getting home yourself, so they should release you in a condition where you are capable of getting home yourself.   Maybe they can achieve this by letting you rest in the recover room for longer, maybe by providing you with food and drink or additional medication - they're the medical professionals, they'd know how. To do anything else is simply a failure to care properly for patients. Policies like this should be prohibited.


And you know what? Let's be bold and extend this rule beyond simple medical care.  All aspects of life should be achievable by anyone without a support person, and if they aren't the relevant organizations should change their policies and practices.  Driving schools should organize their standard courses so people can get fully licenced without having to find their own accompanying driver to practice with. Dresses should be designed so the wearer can put them on and do them up completely without help. The school system should be set up so students can be just as successful even if they don't have a supportive parent.

People who, for whatever reason, don't have a someone who is a fully competent adult who speaks the predominant local language and is able to drop everything to help them when needed are already at a disadvantage. Society and its institutions should be set up to mitigate this disadvantage, not reinforce it.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

New Rules: Natural Consequences Edition X

15. Men who catcall people who don't want to be catcalled are sentenced to losing the ability to get an erection for as long as their target remembers or is negatively affected by the catcall.  The impotence to which they are sentenced is so great that it cannot be overcome by viagra or any other medical technology. Sentences will be served consecutively.

(I'm open to adding a natural consequence for women who catcall people who don't want to be catcalled, but I can't think of one that's equivalent. The obvious choice - losing the ability to become sexually aroused or to perform sexually - doesn't seem like it would have an equivalent emotional/psychological impact.)

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Things Microsoft Word Should Invent (multilingual spellchecking edition)

1. Display all spelling and grammar errors, no matter how much it slows down the program

If your Word document has too many of the red squiggles indicating spelling errors as detected by the spellchecker, it gives you a warning saying there are too many spelling and grammar errors to continue displaying them.  Then all the red squiggles go away and, if you want to spellcheck, you have to select the spellcheck function from the menu and let the spellcheck program crawl the document rather than correcting red squiggles as you go.

The red squiggles are important to my translation process, and not just for spellchecking purposes.  They show me at a glance where I have and haven't translated, as the text in one language is going to be full of red squiggles when the spellchecker is set to the other language.  This is particularly relevant in very long documents (which I don't always translate linearly) and for bilingual documents - which are also the two kinds of documents that are most likely to involve a phase of the translation process where there are too many red squiggles regardless of whether the proofing language is set to the source language or the target language.

So I want a "Show spelling and grammar errors, no matter what, no matter how many there are, no matter how much it slows down the program" option. Just give me my red squiggles - I'll wait! And if I find it is in fact too slow, I can turn them off, and then turn them back on when I particularly need them.

(Yes, I know you're supposed to be able to mark different sections of the document as different languages or tell Word not to spellcheck a certain section, but in practice I find those functions are hit and miss.  Sometimes I tell it over and over again that the left column is English and the right column is French, or that I don't want it to spellcheck the first six pages, but it just doesn't take.  Same with turning the red squiggles back on after I've translated the whole document - sometimes it just says there are too many spelling and grammar errors without even recounting.  I suppose another option would be to make these functions work reliably.)

2. Add phrases to the spellcheck dictionary

In some circumstances, for certain combinations of genre, context and audience, I have to leave official names in the source language rather than translating them into English. Of course, this means they show up as errors in my spellchecking, even though they're not.

I want to be able to add these official names to the spellcheck dictionary, so it doesn't give them red squiggles and corrects them if I make a typo.  However, I don't want to add the individual words to the dictionary, because taken individually they would still be untranslated words and/or typos. I just want spellcheck to recognize the phrase. For example, I want it to recognize that "Ministère des Affaires municipales et de l'Occupation du territoire" is supposed to be there, but the individual words "ministère" and "affaires" and "municipales" and "territoire", when they don't appear in that exact phrase, are not supposed to be there.   

Computers can do this. Search functions have "whole words only" or "exact phrase only" options. And the error detection aspect of spellchecking is basically a search function (i.e. find all the words on this list, then put red squiggles under all the other words). So they should be able to create this option and thereby help reduce the risk of making typos when some words are in another language that hasn't lived in the user's fingers for as long.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

How to end ticket scalping with two simple rules

1. All venues must allow purchasers to return tickets for a full refund.
2. All venues must maintain a waiting list of people who would like to buy any tickets might get returned.

So if you're a regular person who finds yourself unable to attend the event you bought a ticket for, you can get your money back no problem. And if you're a regular person who was signed in with the fan presale code and pressing refresh right at 10:00 but still didn't get through, you will be automatically put in line for any tickets that might become available.

This creates a situation where there is no legitimate resale market, since anyone who has experienced a perfectly innocent change of plans can simply return their tickets to the venue for a full refund.

It also creates, at a minimum, a strong disincentive to buy from resellers at inflated prices until very shortly before the event.  If you aren't able to get through for the presale and instead get waitlisted, you aren't going to go running straight to stubhub. You're going to wait at least a few weeks and see if you get tickets through the waitlist.  People might still want to buy from resellers if they haven't gotten waitlist tickets and the event is just days or hours away, but resellers might also be incentivized to return their unsold tickets to the box office for a refund so they don't have to eat the cost.

They could just introduce these rules and see what happens, or they could get more proactive and add a rule that selling tickets by any means other than through the venue is prohibited.  (They could also write an exception saying that a person who is attending the event can sell the other tickets they purchased in the same block at face value, to permit situations where each member of a group pays for their own tickets, but one person makes the actual purchase so everyone can sit together).

But, regardless of the enforcement details, these two simple rules - both of which could be executed automatically by a computer program - would create a situation where legitimate ticketholders have no reason to resell and where it's far easier for legitimate customers to carry out the scalper boycott that those in the know seem to agree is necessary to once again make it feasible for people who actually want to see the show to be able to buy tickets.