Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Media elite"

It's a common collocation. But is anyone questioning it? The media doesn't strike me as especially elite. Some of them are (I was surprised by the number newspaper columnists who own houses in Toronto), but some of them also strike me as rather base.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

More Information Please: prorogation edition

So what was the government's ostensible/official reason for proroguing? I know that conventional wisdom is that they want to avoid an inquiry into the Afghan detainee scandal. But don't they have to give a plausible-sounding nominal reason before proroguing with legislation still on the order paper?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

We Will Rock and Roll You

Queen vs. Joan Jett, with 50 Cent popping in:

The Ugly Glasses Chronicles

I suppose, objectively speaking, I can't quite call them ugly. They were bold. They were rectangular. They were trendy, in both the positive and negative senses of the word. They were chosen by a friend whose objective fashion sense I (still do) trust implicitly, and any halfway competent person could fully justify them as a fashion choice. They were also a wise purchase. The day I tried them on was the last day that they were on sale for 50% off (bringing their price BELOW the limit covered by my insurance!!), and three separate Lenscrafters employees assured me that I could return them for a full refund (which I ended up doing), so I decided to give myself time to see if I'd grow into them.

But the more I wore them, the more they made me feel hideous.

Their rectangular shape emphasized the squareness of my jaw and the lines on my forehead (which I detest not because they're lines, but because they are exactly the same as my father's). The thicker frame completely boxed in and emphasized the dark skin around my eyes when I wasn't wearing makeup, making me hesitant to even run to the grocery store without full makeup. Wearing my hair up was no longer an option, which is problematic at hip-length. Red lipstick no longer worked (and what's the point of life if you can't enjoy red lipstick?) I felt butch. I felt like a laughingstock. I felt like a fashion victim. I felt 13 years old again. I cried myself to sleep. I avoided making eye contact with my reflection in mirrors. I couldn't imagine wearing them with a sexy dress. If I had run into a client with whom I've only corresponded by email, or someone from high school whom I haven't seen in 10 years, I would have been embarrassed to be seen in these glasses.

So I went back and got the glasses I'd had my eye on in the first place, the pair I was, despite my best efforts to be open-minded, daydreaming about wearing. The pair that I fully expected would cause my fashion-savvy friend to say "We can stop shopping right now, this is perfect!" (In reality, they were relegated to about 4th place.) They're less fashion-forward, but I feel like myself in them.

I felt better now. I could breathe. I could stop crying, knowing that glasses that made me happy were on their way. But it would still be 10 days until they could be made. During that time, I had to navigate the city, meet with clients and convince them of my competence, get beauty treatments from people who are cooler than me, buy things and return things, deal with relatives over xmas, and generally perform as a competent adult despite the fact that my every instinct wanted to vanish into shame and shoegazing like my 13-year-old self.

So I had to very quickly learn a new skill. I had to fake being confident in these humiliating glasses. I had to aggressively externalize my energy, pushing the green of my eyes beyond these thick plastic rectangles that were boxing me in, convincing the world that I'm a confident hipster and this look is totally on purpose and of course I can totally pull it off. It was exhausting, but it was effective. I think I managed to carry myself as though this were a deliberate fashion choice, and somehow I managed to develop an effective "quelling glare" (as Miss Manners puts it) on the way. And, in the process, I fulfilled one of my birthday horoscopes from last year.

Overall, it was very much a learning experience. I went in not trusting my fashion instincts because my previous pair of glasses (which I love) were counter to most of my fashion instincts at the time of purchase. But from wearing the ugly glasses and then going back to the ones my instincts first wanted me to wear, I learned a lot about which of my fashion instincts I should trust and where I should and shouldn't follow trends (which is something I consider an essential adult life skill, but I haven't yet perfected it for glasses as much as I have for clothes). The energy and body language skills I developed trying to appear confident in the ugly glasses will serve me well as I work on Entitlement. I've developed a much better sense of where I'm comfortably willing to spend money on glasses, and I've gotten better at working with opticians to find something that suits me. Lots learned, good life experience. All of which is very easy to say now that I'm not stuck with the ugly ones for a whole year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Excellent customer service from Lenscrafters

Props to Lenscrafters, specifically their Fairview Mall location, for allowing me to easily and effortlessly return a pair of glasses (in keeping with their 30 day return policy) simply because I didn't like them.

I am fully aware that, as a competent adult, I should be able to tell whether or not I like the aesthetics of something when I'm first shopping for it, and returning a custom-made product is rather high maintenance. I know they can't resell my glasses, they lost money on the transaction, and someone might have even lost commission (which I do regret, but I really couldn't find anything else I liked in the store). And yet, despite all this, they still allowed me to return my glasses outright for a full refund without any drama or guilt, and without my needing to be assertive about it. There was an initial offer to help me find a pair I like better, but there was no further pressure once I told them I'd already found a pair I like better elsewhere.

I am very happy with the service I received, it makes me feel safe shopping at Lenscrafters, and I very much look forward to doing business with them again in the future.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


As I do every year, I read every birthday horoscope I could find. Like 80% of them suggested that a lifestyle change would be happening in the next year. This scares me, because a) I've never had that degree of agreement among different horoscopes before, and b) apart from the possibility of a dog entering my life, I can't think of any way my lifestyle might realistically (i.e. no winning the lottery) change for the better. I'm in a good place now, I have what I need and what I want, I can't really see any realistic room for improvement.

Many of my horoscopes also talk about overcoming new challenges, in that bright, perky, slightly desperate tone of optimism used by people who have been laid off and decide to/are forced to go it alone as "entrepreneurs" in contract hell.

My horoscopes always come true, but never in a way I could have predicted. However, given the limitations of reality and the finite nature of the resources available to me, I can't see any possibility of a change in lifestyle or new challenges to overcome being a positive thing. And intellectually I know I've already had more than my lifetime's share of good luck.

I'm scared. I just want to stay safe.

I don't think I like my horoscopes this year


This year, you want to transform your daily life. Your vision might not coincide with what really happens. Examine your long-term desires, and don't focus on the status quo. If you are single, you will open a new door. The person you choose could be from a foreign country. If you are attached, the two of you will benefit from better communication and a willingness to detach. Work on the friendship that exists between you as well.

Globe and Mail:

You have big plans and you get a kick out of telling friends and relatives what they are but at some stage you are going to have to stop talking and start doing. Time may not be running out exactly but it is certainly counting down. If not now, then when?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Poetry reading

Idea of the moment: Sonnet 29 being half-screamed, half-wept by a Beatles-movie-style fangirl trying to corner her idol at the stage door.

More information please: detainees edition

Why does the Canadian military in Afghanistan have detainees in the first place? Most of the media coverage I've seen doesn't explain how they came to be detainees. The impression I've gotten (which may well be incorrect or not entirely accurate) is that they track down people who have planted bombs etc. and arrest them like you'd arrest a civilian criminal in peacetime. Is that normal? It doesn't seem very military to me, and vaguely offends my sense of fair play. Would Canada have arrested people similarly during, say, WWII?

I have heard of prisoners of war, and I'm assuming that these detainees aren't prisoners of war or they'd be calling them that. Why aren't they prisoners of war? Are Canadian troops equipped to handle prisoners of war? If not, why not? If they are equipped for prisoners of war, why are they outsourcing their detainees?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Crossover fanfic bunny

Eve Dallas crosses paths with Dexter Morgan, who, it turns out, killed Eve's mother (for perfectly valid, Code of Harry reasons).

Dexter would be about 80 by then, which is well within life expectancy in the In Death universe, and it would be easy to create reasons for him to be wherever Stella was in 2030 and then to be in New York (or for Eve to be in Miami, or for them to both be in the same third location) in 2060.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dear please ship by Canada Post, not UPS

I get into the elevator. I press the number for my floor. A UPS lady is standing in there for some reason, and when she notices the number I press asks me my apartment number. I tell her, and she hands me a signy thing and a package...from Amazon! "Weird that Amazon is shipping through UPS," I say as I sign the signy thing. "It's a new contract," she tells me.

Dear Amazon: Please go back to Canada Post!

Canada Post is easy and convenient. They just leave it in my mailbox. If it's too big or they need a signature, the post office is a block away. Effortless!

However, UPS can't leave stuff in my mailbox and requires a signature for every delivery. Like most people, I work during the day and am never home during UPS delivery times. Today I only just caught the lady as she was leaving, and that's because I didn't do errands after work like I normally do. So I end up having to go an hour out of my way, by bus, to the UPS depot on a remote stretch of Steeles. And on top of this already-disproportionate inconvenience, there's not much around the UPS depot (the street backs onto the back end of a field) and there aren't many eyes on the street, so I don't feel particularly safe waiting for the bus there after dark, which comes at about 4:30 pm this time of year. (This is where I'd have to wait for the bus. In comparison, when I have to wait for a bus in real life, it's usually in a place that looks more like this.)

Frankly, if they're going to ship by UPS it simply isn't worth it for me to buy from Amazon any more, which is tragic because Amazon has always been the easiest and my preferred way to buy anything that they sell. I sent them a note through their customer service thing, hoping it will get directed to the right people. (It's so hard to find an actual contact address on the site!)

Update: I got an email back from Amazon saying, among other things, that they are passing my concerns on to the shipping department. If you share these concerns, I'd suggest you let Amazon know too. Wouldn't you rather have your purchases in your mailbox than at the UPS depot?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Things They Should Invent (throwing money at problems edition)

1. Equip all food drives to collect money as well as cans

Food drives are inconvenient for me. Apart from my 72-hour kit, I tend not to have unopened nonperishable food on hand that I don't plan to use in the very near future. And when I find myself in possession of unopened nonperishable food that I don't think I'm going to get any use out of, I tend to put it in the food bank bin at the grocery store as a matter of course. So if I'm going to give actual food to a food drive, I have to either buy food specifically for that purpose, or I have to buy food specifically to replace the food that I removed from my kitchen.

However, I am happy to give money. I also think I read somewhere that money is actually more useful to the food banks, because they can get food for cheaper than retail (either bulk discounts, or wholesale prices, or suppliers giving good deals to food banks) and they can use the money to buy whatever food they're low on at the moment.

I totally see the appeal of giving actual food to food banks, but if all food drives were equipped to collect money as well, it would be easier and better for everyone.

2. Hybrid potlucks

Some people like potlucks because it saves money; these people don't mind going to a bit of inconvenience to save money. Other people don't like potlucks because they're inconvenient - these people don't mind spending a bit of money for convenience. The problem is when you have a mixed group. You just want to have a fun social event without burdening anyone unduly, but some people feel unduly burdened by having to spend money for a restaurant meal, while others feel unduly burdened by having to prepare a dish that's good enough to serve to others, big enough for a large group, and can be transported to the destination without being ruined.

Solution: a hybrid potluck. You can either contribute a dish, or you can contribute money. All the money is pooled and used to order pizza or buy catering. Perhaps one person's contribution could be to collect all the money and use it to fill in whatever gaps are remaining in the spread. That way everyone can contribute in the manner that's least burdensome to them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Things They Should Invent: effortlessness awareness

At an environmental presentation last year, I sat next to an investment banker who was initially skeptical when I explained that New Yorkers have a significantly lower environmental impact than other Americans. “But that’s just because they’re all crammed together,” he said. Just so. He then disparaged New Yorkers’ energy efficiency as “unconscious,” as though intention were more important than results. But unconscious efficiencies are the most desirable ones, because they require neither enforcement nor a personal commitment to cutting back. New Yorkers’ energy consumption has always been low, no matter what was happening with the price of fossil fuels; their carbon footprint isn’t small because they go around snapping off lights.

I've seen this sentiment - that optimal behaviour achieved effortlessly doesn't count - in a number of places. It's something a lot of people seem to land on without much critical thinking. You see it often in environmentalism (c.f. the plastic bag thing). Those calculators and websites that measure your environmental footprint tend to give you more credit for making drastic changes to negative behaviour than for having positive behaviour in the first place. Remember the One Tonne Challenge? If you reduce your greenhouse gas emissions from 8 tonnes to 7 tonnes, you win. If you reduce your footprint from 2 tonnes to 1.5 tonnes, you don't win. During Commuter Challenge week, you get credit for carpooling to work if you normally drive alone. However, you don't get any credit if you normally walk to work as a matter of course.

You also see it in health and fitness. Remember the thing where you're supposed to take 10,000 steps a day? You see all kinds of hints about how to get steps in by going slightly out of your way. (Park far away! Take a walk after dinner!) I happen to have inadvertently achieved it by living and working a few minutes' walk away from subway stations. But I have had people tell me on one hand that I'm being lazy by wanting to live an effortless walk away from the grocery store (as opposed to a distance that is either an effortful walk or a short bus ride), and on the other hand that I really should make the effort to maybe walk to the next subway station for health and fitness reasons.

You also get it in financial planning. I stay in the black primarily by diverting a certain amount of money from each paycheque into another account that I have to go to some effort to access. It never passes through my chequing/debit/bill-paying account, so I don't feel like I have it, so I don't spend it. Crude, but effective. Even if I spend every dollar in my primary account, I still have some money. But in some quarters I'm considered financially irresponsible because I buy my lunch instead of packing it, buy my groceries at the most convenient store rather than wherever each item is cheaper, etc.

I'm thinking it might be helpful if the general population became more inclined to appreciate effortlessness. Then when people go about making changes to things, they might be more inclined to look for solutions that will make optimal behaviour effortless rather than trying to get people to make additional efforts, however small.

So how do we raise awareness of effortlessness? What if there were websites/quizzes along the lines of the environmental footprint ones, but with the intention of drawing your attention to what you're already doing? They could determine the behaviour of the average person, and set up the quiz to identify where you're doing better and congratulate you for it. "Congratulations! Just by going about life normally, you're already using 10% less energy than the average person!"

Of course, we can't stop there because everyone would become complacent. So the next step, once we have everyone aware of the good their already doing effortlessly, is to promote ways to introduce effortless optimal behaviour next time people are changing things. Why next time they're changing things? Because that's a time when things are changing anyway, so may as well change for the better. For example, rather than "Replace all your lightbulbs with CFLs," say "Next time a lightbulb burns out, replace it with a CFL." Rather than "Walk or bike to the grocery store," say "Next time you move, try to find a place where walking to the grocery store is just as easy as driving." Rather than "Stop all not-strictly-necessary spending and pay off your debt," try "Next time you get a raise, put the entire amount of the raise towards paying off debt on top of your normal repayment schedule."

I think if people had more respect and appreciation for effortlessness, a great many things would get done better.

Things They Should Study: what is the impact of xmas on flu pandemics?

Public health officials are being accused of overinflating the flu threat get rid of extra vaccine doses, with the thinking that the flu threat is currently winding down.

But it seems to me that xmas could exacerbate the spread of the flu just because people tend to travel back to their families of origin.

By a quick mental head count, over xmas eve and xmas day I'm going to be seeing, talking to, and eating with (in rather close quarters) people from about 20 different households and 15 different schools/workplaces, including a few medical institutions. They could carry in viruses from any of those places, and any viruses brought in could be carried back to any of those places. And this is happening in many many families all around the world.

Surely that would have some impact on the spread of the flu?

My trip home today

I enjoyed this sequence of songs my ipod gave me on the way home today.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Please answer in the comments, anonymous comments welcome:

Someone you encounter in everyday life (but aren't necessarily friends with) has new glasses. You like the new glasses. Do you say something to them?

Wondering because I currently have a new pair of glasses that I don't necessarily like. They're from Lenscrafters, so I'm allowed to return them within 30 days. I'm taking people's reactions into consideration under the assumption that if they like them they'll say something, and if they don't like them they won't say anything. Trying to figure out if this is a safe assumption.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I am happy with the TTC today

A controversial ad under consideration for use on the TTC was being reviewed today, and the TTC's committee decided to reject it.

I am very happy with this decision.

I do not like that ad. I have so far succeeded in boycotting everywhere where I've seen the thing in question advertised (and sent them a note telling them exactly why I'm boycotting them), but obviously I can't boycott the TTC.

I wasn't expecting them to reject the ad. It encourages assholic behaviour and violates values on the more conservative end of the spectrum of generally accepted social values (probably the most conservative of the values that I do hold). The objection is emotional and visceral, not rational. Personally, what it comes down to for me is that I just want my city to be better than that. A sound and valid sentiment, but I didn't think it would be enough to lead the TTC to deliberately decline ad revenues.

However, whatever the reason, they did reject it. Props! I am very glad not to have to be ashamed of my city.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Advice columns

David Eddie:

I recently moved into a house that is shared by five people. Four of the housemates have been friends for years and have lived together for three. I am the newcomer. I'm usually very shy, but I made an effort to come out of my shell and be involved in the goings on in the house. My efforts to be friendly weren't exactly rebuffed, but they weren't received all that warmly either. For the past few months, I've withdrawn more and more, and feel increasingly isolated from the people I live with, to the point that I find it uncomfortable to be in my own home. My shyness has been an obstacle my whole life, and I don't want to let it rule me any more. Any suggestions on how to reintegrate myself into the house?

I think there are really two questions here: "How can I make friends?" (which David Eddie answered) and "How can I make friends with specific people?" (which the LW was really asking).

The older I get, the more I agree that unapologetically being yourself is an effective way to make friends, because it screens out incompatible people. If you're irritated by the way I play with my hair or how I glom onto words where the presence or absence of a hyphen switches meaning (resign vs. re-sign, for example) or the way I forget to ask how your day was half the time, it's better that we aren't friends.

But LW wants to make friends with these particular housemates, because they live with them. It is possible that their whole and unapologetic self might not be as compatible with the housemates, like how you sometimes have to bite your tongue to get along in family or the workplace or other contexts where a bunch of people a thrust together rather than choosing each other. Unfortunately, LW wants more than to just get along, they want to be actual friends, and I don't know how to make that happen. It's a skill I've never managed to develop.

Carolyn Hax:

I am the only child of my father's current wife, and have much older half-siblings. When I was little, one sister was very sweet to me; over the years, though, as her relationship with our father had ups and downs, she would stop speaking to him and therefore to me. The first time was when I was 7, and I didn't hear from her for five years.

It has happened periodically since. She has ignored most of the major milestones in my life, and excluded me from hers while not doing so with the rest of our siblings.

When I asked why, she told me she could not separate her feelings about our father from her feelings toward me.

I am expecting my first child and am yet again disappointed by my sister's lack of acknowledgment. I would like to protect my child from her alternating warmth and hurtful indifference. Would it be inappropriate to keep her out of his life?

I feel so sorry for this LW, because while she truly (and understandably) does feel like she and the half-sister are siblings and wants her idea of what constitutes sisterly love from her, the half-sister (understandably) doesn't view LW as much more than some random relative you see when you're getting together with your family.

Let's start with the half-sister's point of view. It sounds from the letter like she never lived with their father during LW's life, she just saw LW when she visited her father. When LW was born, half-sister (hereinafter "HS") saw her as a cute little baby whom she saw when she was visiting her father. Then as LW got older, HS saw her as a small child whom she saw when she was visiting her father. If we assume HS is 10 years older than LW (and it sounds like it could be much more), then it would never have occurred to HS to develop a separate relationship with LW, because LW was just too young for it to have any substance. Would it ever occur to you, either currently or when you were in your late teens, to develop a substantive relationship with a six-year-old? Probably not. You'd be perfectly nice to them, play with them and talk to them when you're in their presence, maybe buy them a birthday gift so you have an excuse to shop for toys, but you're just in different worlds and you'd just see them when you see their parents.

On top of all this, it also sounds like HS has full siblings who grew up in the same household as her. If you've lived with your siblings, that is, for better or for worse, what defines the sibling relationship - having shared space, fought over the last piece of cake, tried to kick each other out of the bathroom, messed with each other's Barbies, puked on each other during long family road trips. Someone whom you only see occasionally simply isn't going to feel as much like a sibling. Without that sense of constant competition, they're going to feel more like a cousin, or, if the age difference is significant, like some relative's kid. As cruel as it sounds to say, their relationship simply isn't personal.

Meanwhile, LW only has these much-older half-siblings, so to her that's what a sister is. These half-siblings are all the siblings she has, they've been her siblings her whole life, and to her the relationship is very personal. Perhaps HS was around more in the early years of LW's life because when you're younger (a student or recently launched young adult, for example) you spend more time in parental households then drift away as you get older.

This is so sad because it's really nobody's fault. HS's actions and feelings are perfectly natural and understandable from her point of view, and LW's feelings are perfectly natural and understandable from her point of view. It would never occur to HS that LW might see her as such a big part of her life, and it would never occur to LW that HS could see her as not particularly relevant but it is in no way intended as a dis. HS is the only sister LW has ever known, but HS doesn't see LW as a sister for reasons completely beyond LW's control and that no way reflect either person's worth.

And, once again, it comes down to someone wanting to make another specific person like them.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The responsibilities of Canadian citizenship

Sometimes you hear people say in letters to the editor etc. that there's too much emphasis on our rights as Canadian citizens and not enough on our responsibilities. I gave this some thought, and realized I have no idea what my responsibilities specifically as a Canadian citizen are. I mean, I assume I'm doing it right since no one has complained, but as I was born into citizenship it's not something I've ever had to give a moment's thought to. So I googled it.

From Citizenship and Immigration Canada:

* to obey Canada’s laws;
* to express opinions freely while respecting the rights and freedoms of others;
* to help others in the community;
* to care for and protect our heritage and environment; and
* to eliminate discrimination and injustice.

Citizens have all the responsibilities listed above and the responsibility to:

* vote in elections.

That sounds an awful lot like Wheaton's Law: "Don't be a dick." Most people do these things anyway, without even giving a moment's thought to citizenship, just because they don't want to be the kind of asshole who doesn't.

Does anyone really require it being made part of the responsibilities of citizenship to do these things? Would the fact that they're the responsibilities of citizenship change the mind of the kind of person who isn't inclined to do these things? What are these letters to the editor writers experiencing that they think it's so important greater emphasis be put on these things in their specific capacity as responsibilities of citizenship?

Although, I do see a lot of potential for fun to be had incorporating these factors in their specific capacity as responsibilities of citizenship when emailing our elected representatives...

Things They Should Invent: sexy nighties with built-in support

Picture a long, sleek, sexy nightgown. A bit shiny, spaghetti straps, the kind of thing that could almost-kinda-sorta look like a simple formal dress. The kind of thing you might wear for seduction, but also might wear to bed at home just for yourself, to feel sexy and feminine. Nice, eh?

The problem is, if you're well-endowed, it just doesn't work as well. You're walking around with your arms folded under your breasts so you don't flop around, and they ooze unattractively out your armpit holes when you lie down. That just isn't sexy at all.

The solution? A bit of support. Nothing hardcore - no underwires or anything - but maybe a few elastics or something just to keep the girls from straying outside their designated territory, like you might have in a bathing suit. I've seen bras installed in babydoll-type nighties that clearly are not intended for sleep at all, why not also do it for things that a person might ostensibly sleep in?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Things They Should Study: do dynamic opinions ever change direction?

There are many many things in life I don't know everything about. So in circumstances where I don't know everything but I still need to have an opinion, I tend to pay attention to my dynamic opinions. The more I learn about X, the more I think Y. For example, the more I learn about WWI, the more I think it wasn't a worthwhile war. The more I learn about real estate, the more I think it shouldn't be treated as an investment. The more money I make and the more taxes I pay, the more I feel it's essential to use our taxes to strengthen our social safety net.

What I'm wondering: are dynamic opinions reliable in the long term, or do people's dynamic opinions ever reverse directions? If so, under what circumstances? Are there specific triggers?

Slices of life

1. Last time I went to the library, I found a teensy, adorable, baby blue mitten on the ground, probably thrown by some baby in a stroller playing the "What happens when I throw things out of the stroller?" game. It was so tiny and cute I just had to pick it up off the ground and carefully place it on a nearby newspaper box. Today I went to the library again, and the mitten was still there on the newspaper box. That made me feel about three conflicting and irrational emotions at once.

2. I was at Shopper's trying to decide whether I want my eyelashes to be 70% curlier or 10x more voluminous. Meanwhile, the guy browsing the shelves next to me is doing the "Avoid eye contact so the other person doesn't notice you" thing. Which was odd, because he wasn't someone I knew at all even in passing, he was just some random stranger. Meh, whatever. I went with 10x more voluminous and continued my shopping. It wasn't until I had finished my shopping, waited in line, paid for my purchases, and was leaving the store that it occurred to me that perhaps the reason he was shy and/or trying to avoid being notice was because he was a man shopping for cosmetics.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Code or divorce law?

I was watching Some Like It Hot, and the guy who manages to get engaged to the millionaire says that his plan is not to tell the millionaire he's really a man until "Like right after the ceremony. Then we get a quick annulment, he makes a nice little settlement on me and I keep getting those alimony checks every month."

Could you get alimony from an annulled marriage in the 1950s? Or were they not allowed to say "divorce" in the movies?

Or was it just a flawed plan to start with?

Currently on repeat

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Things They Should Invent: commission disclosure

All business should be required to post prominently, both on their website and in their stores, whether their employees get paid commission. That way we as consumers could make informed decisions.

This comes to mind as I go through the dance of buying new glasses. I've been feeling uninspired by the offerings available, and have been considering going into an optician and asking them "If you could put me in any frames, which ones would they be?" I wouldn't necessarily buy those automatically, but perhaps they might be able to match me up with something more suitable that I would have overlooked. But if they're on commission, I can't trust them to give me pure fashion advice, because they might also be trying to upsell me.

On the other hand, I always do the fashion aspect of my glasses shopping without my prescription in hand. That way, no one can possibly pressure me into buying anything and I am forced to revist my decision another day to see if I still like them. So the person who helps me with all the trying on isn't necessarily going to be the person who finalizes the sale. I'd very much like to know if they're on commission, so I can make sure the person who did all the work gets the commission.

Friday, December 04, 2009

New Rules

1. Parents are allowed to be overprotective on one condition: their kids get to choose what they want to be overprotected from. The parents can decide how many things they need to be overprotective about. For example, a parent might feel the need to be overprotective about six things. Then their kid will give them a list of six things they want to be overprotected from.

2. If you're trying to advertise something or get people to donate to charity or otherwise try to get people to do different things with their money, you have to work under the assumption that they're already being mindful about how they're using their money. "You could have X for the price of a cup of coffee a day!" But aren't you, personally, buying coffee when you need coffee and not buying coffee when you don't need coffee? Give others the respect of making the same assumption about them.

3. Many people and/or philosophies feel the need to encourage people to appreciate and/or be thankful for the simple things in life and/or the important things in life. That's fine, but you have to let them choose which simple/important things they want to appreciate/be thankful for rather than dictating it to them.

I wonder if people will one day learn to read non-predicted text

I wanted to add my optometrist's office's phone number to my cell phone. I typed in the number, then for the contact name I typed "optometrist". Unfortunately, the contact name field doesn't have predictive text, so what came out was "mptndtpgpt".

We all see predictive text typoes every once in a while, in text messages and on twitter. For example, "me" and "of" are spelled with the same keys, and we've seen them get confused with each other often enough that we can generally tell what was intended. I wonder if one day we'll become familiar enough with them that someone will be able to look at "mptndtpgpt" and see that it was obviously meant to say "optometrist"?

Things They Should Invent: load content before environment

Especially when using a slow computer or network, I often find myself staring at the header of a website while waiting for the actual content to load. The browser is processing the header and the sidebar and the widgets and the archives and the ads, and I don't care about any of that stuff. I just want to see the content.

So what we need is a new web standard: load content first. This would mean that the space in the template for content would be at the top of the template document, and would then be followed by the headers and sidebar and any in-body style sheets and widgets whatever other detritus is on the page. The result would be that if the page is loading slowly, we'd first see the content in the default font without the surrounding environment, and then the environment would appear as the page loads. Stuff might shift around as the page loads, but at least you could start reading the article right away instead of having to stare at the header while you wait for stuff to load.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Why is it normal for kids to pick out their parents' nursing home?

I don't know a whole lot about nursing homes, but I could learn if I have to. My parents (who are in their 50s) probably don't know much more than I do about nursing homes unless they've been doing some research lately, but they could also learn if they have to. We all have access to the same information and the same resources. If a nursing home decision had to be made right this exact minute, I am no better equipped than my parents to make this decision.

So why would I suddenly be better equipped 30 years from now? Yes, I'll probably learn more stuff from living in the world. But so will they - they live in the world too. Yes, I know some people get dementia or similar, but it's practically expected that the adult children are making their parent's care decisions instead of the parent making their own decisions. Why aren't the elders making these decisions for themselves?

This happens in other areas too. People manage their parents' money. Why? Weren't the parents managing their money before their kids were even born? Why would you lose that ability? Scammers prey on seniors. Why are seniors more susceptible to scams? Shouldn't they be even more familiar with potential scams since they've been around longer?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Hustle and bustle

I've often heard people say that they choose to live in cities because they enjoy all the hustle and bustle, being in the middle of everything. I find that odd, because to me it's irrelevant. I chose to live here because of convenience - everything is right there! It seemed odd to me that such a major life decision would be based on how many extras are walking through the frame of the movie of your life.

But then I saw this picture of Amsterdam taken by Alfie Hitchcock, the photographer on Eddie Izzard's tour (which should totally add a Toronto date to the itinerary, btw) and thought how it's rather amazing that there are real people, living real lives, in a place that looks like that. The next day, on my way to work, I tried to imagine what my corner of the world would look like to someone from another country. Walking down the street, I wasn't quite able to see it from foreign eyes, but I noticed what kept attracting my attention was all the stuff that was happening. The crane building the new condos was lifting a big heavy load. There was a truck delivering beer, a truck delivering shoes, and a truck delivering kitchen utensils. The mailman was delivering mail. People were rushing out of coffee shops with take-out cups of coffee. As I tried to view my life through foreign eyes, what was attracting my attention was all the hustle and bustle. But why?


When I was 10 years old, our family went on a vacation to England, the first week of which was spent in London. We flew into Gatwick airport and took a train into the city proper. I was really surprised by what I saw out the windows of the train - some of it was dirty, some of it was ugly, some of it was shabby. This was not what I expected. (Especially since I wasn't aware at the time that trains usually see the backs of things, not the front face that they present to the world). I'd always thought of Europe as the pictures I'd seen in storybooks, which didn't include peeling paint and pollution.

The flat we were staying in was a bit of shock too. The building was old (by my North American standards) - so old that it had originally been built without plumbing, and a toilet and a shower had been haphazardly installed in two separate closets later - literally water closets! But what was even more surprising was that when you looked out the back window, you saw roofs and chimneys of other buildings. They were old too, and kind of grungy, like the roofs in Mary Poppins. We could see other people's back windows from our back windows!

The other thing that was a bit of a shock, and I don't know if this is cultural or just because I was sheltered at home, was hints of human sexuality in media. In the Tube stations there were movie posters featuring a nude woman covered by a sheet. The sheet covered everything that needed to be covered, but it was apparent from the arrangement that she was nude underneath - no possibility for her to be wearing underwear or anything. I also clearly remember a cover of a women's magazine with a reference to "making love" and a man with his hands on a woman's (clothed) buttocks, which caused me to spend some time trying to figure out where a man touching your bum comes into the process of a penis going into a vagina. Magazine racks included magazines with pictures of topless women on the cover. TV sitcoms included sexual innuendo. This was an adult world, and I had literally never seen anything like it in my life.

This was a scary place, this London. It was quite clearly intended for adults, and it quite clearly had history far beyond anything I could possibly imagine. I wasn't used to this. I grew up in a house that my parents bought brand new when they were pregnant with me, and many of my friends lived in similar houses in a neighbourhood that was all built at the same time - a whole neighbourhood intended for child-rearing. Our house backed onto a ravine, so I wasn't used to being able to see into other people's space. My world consisted of a few winding streets on the 15 minute walk to my elementary school, with nothing more complex than a little park with swings and climbers, and a Becker's where we could buy candy. The rest of the world I saw through the window of a car. We'd go to my grandparents' houses and they were smaller and older, but that made sense because my grandparents were smaller and older. Sometimes I'd go on errands and stuff with my parents, we'd go places in cities, we'd go to tourist things, but these were just sets for different scenes in the movie that was my life. Just like in the books I read, I was clearly the protagonist, the different places I went were just sets, and the space in between viewed through the car window was nothing more than pictures to entertain me on the ride.

In London, I was quite obviously not the protagonist. This was an adult world, and there was no effort to hide that from the children. Because school was still in session when we were there, we would often be the only children in sight, and as a result I felt constantly out of place. It also had history. People had been there before, and they were relevant. I saw pictures from the 1940s of Tube stations - actual, real-life Tube stations that I had been in, in real life, just moments earlier - filled with people in suits and skirts hiding from WWII air raids. I saw pictures of Victoria Station, which I had actually been in, from the 19th century, filled with long skirts and top hats. All kinds of people had been there, most of them adults, doing important and historical things. They had left their dust and their fingerprints and their antiquated attempts to install toilets. I, 10 years old, in a sweatshirt and running shoes, was irrelevant to this world of grownups in suits and/or mohawks, walking in the footsteps of generations before them, through streets that had been bombed by nazis and shat on by horses and built by kings. I wasn't the protagonist. I wasn't even an extra. I was just some random kid who had accidentally wandered onto the set. I didn't belong there at all. It was terrifying.

But after a couple of days in London, I had a revelation: I knew how to use the Tube. I had been on public transit before, but I had always simply been following my parents, who knew where they were going. In London, I watched them figure it out, and saw that it was actually quite simple. I could totally use it independently! (Wasn't allowed to, being only 10, but I unquestionably had the ability.) Once we went to some town or something on the outskirts of London, a trip which involved a couple of different tube lines and one or two trains. Looking at the map, I could totally figure out how to get there myself. I had the ability to go to another town! Unilaterally! This was a super power! I spent hours looking at the gorgeous and complicated London Underground map figuring out how to get places. This world was terrifyingly big and old and adult, but I could navigate it! I had the ability to be a perfectly competent part of this big scary adult world just like all those grownups on the train! I had literally never before in my life felt adult competence, and I was feeling it not at home where I was the protagonist, but in this big, old, adult place where I clearly didn't belong. It had never before even occurred to me that I might ever one day - not even in the distant and adult future - experience such competence and empowerment. But the moment I realized I could navigate the London Underground, it occurred to me for literally the first time in my life that I might one day be able to fit into, or at least move undetected through, a world that is so much bigger and grander than me.

I've had an affection for trains ever since, and to this day, after nearly 10 years living in Toronto, I still feel a little bit cool when I take the subway.


So back to Toronto in 2009. I'm quite clearly not the protagonist here. I'm nothing more than an unnamed extra, and I'm quite content in that role. But as I walk down the street, watching all the hustle and bustle, I can see that it all relates to me. Those condos the crane is building? The people who live there will be my neighbours - at the very least I'll be able to recognize their dogs. Those trucks delivering stuff? I totally shop at those businesses. It's very likely that I'll drink that beer, buy those kitchen utensils, or try on those shoes. That mailman? He knocked on my door one hot, sunny, summer Saturday and handed me the Harry Potter book I was eagerly awaiting. That coffee shop? I once sat in there for an hour, waiting out a freak thunderstorm in which my shoes got wrecked and my foot injured. For the price of a cup of coffee they let me use whatever resources they could scrounge together to dry myself off, repair my shoes, and give first aid to my injured foot so I could get home.

I'm part of it! Not a big part, not an important part, but have my little niche and fit into it nicely, despite the fact that this world is so much bigger than me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I think I've had too much "enrichment"

From this weekend's Globe and Mail:

Bob is in a bar, looking at Susan. But she is looking at Pablo. Bob is married. Pablo is not.

Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? The answer could be (a) yes, (b) no or (c) cannot be determined.

Give this problem a shot before you keep reading, but don't feel badly if you get it wrong.

Roughly 80 per cent of people choose (c), but it is not the correct answer, says Keith Stanovich, a professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto.


If Susan is married, then a married person is looking at an unmarried person (Pablo) . If she is single, then Bob, a married guy, is looking at an unwed woman. Either way, the answer to the question is yes: A married person is looking at an unmarried one.

I did get it wrong, but not for the reasons the article proposes. I got it wrong because I have never in my life been asked a logic problem of this style in which I have had to apply real-world information (in this case, the fact that Susan must necessarily be either married or unmarried) to the elements of the problem.

Many IQ test questions and many of the questions in the enrichment activities I had to do in elementary school in my capacity as a "gifted" student are structured like this, but the nature of the elements is irrelevant. For example: "All shirts are green. My dog is green. Therefore, my dog is a shirt: true or false?" The fact that my dog is clearly not a shirt is irrelevant; they're testing my ability to logic out the fact that just because all Xs are Y, something that is Y isn't necessarily an X. Another possibility would be "All shirts are green. My dog is a shirt. Therefore, my dog is green: true or false?" The answer there would be "true", despite the fact that in reality my dog is clearly not a shirt.

Based on the structure of the Bob/Susan/Pablo question, I was expecting a dog/shirt type question. It never even occurred to me that I might be expected to take human reality into account, because I have never before been expected to take human reality into account when answering this kind of question.

(Interestingly, all the enrichment activities etc. led me to know exactly what to expect in the little quiz at the end of that article. I didn't even have to think about it - I rattled off the answers like you'd rattle off your times tables.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Things They Should Invent: a freecycle in every apartment building

There are 200ish apartments in the typical highrise building. It's quite possible that's enough households for a viable freecycle. All buildings should have this. If you have something that's perfectly useful but you just don't need it, you can put it in a central location. And if you need something and wouldn't mind getting it used, you can look in this central location. It would be more convenient than conventional freecycling because you wouldn't have to find a specific taker or arrange a time and place to transfer the item, you could just drop it off in the central location. Perhaps after things have been in the freecycle for a certain amount of time without any takers, property management could donate them to some charity or arrange for a freecycle with a wider audience. (Perhaps this could be part of Environment Days?)

As I've blogged about before, things that are technically useful but their owner has no use for them tend to end up in the landfill. And I believe under current regulations (at least in Toronto) property owners are financially responsible for the amount of garbage produced by their building. It would be very much to their advantage to make this possible.

The weird thing about Casablanca

I'm watching Casablanca on TV. It's a well-known piece of trivia that when they started filming they didn't yet know how the movie would end. I just realized that, because the move was released in 1942, they also didn't know how WWII would end!

That was something that really struck me as I was reading Suite Française - the author didn't know, and never would know, how WWII ended. But when they made Casablanca they didn't know either. And there's probably some other books or movies written during WWII and set in WWII where they didn't know how the war would end. That is so weird!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Programming note

My flu shot is making my arm achy, so after a full day of typing at a computer (i.e. work) I'm not really up to more typing at a computer (i.e. blogging). Back in a couple of days hopefully.

The Toronto Public Health flu clinic was excellently organized, by the way. There wasn't even any wait yesterday. Props to them for their ability to quickly adapt!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Things Microsoft Word Should Invent: treat text boxes like part of the document

When text boxes are used in the documents I translate, it's always purely for layout purposes. The author just wants these words to be grouped off over here. The problem is that Word doesn't treat them like part of the document. When I Select All (to change language, to restore any formatting that has been altered by copy-pasting or translation memory) and when I search and replace (to save time, to ensure phraseological consistency, to fix any suboptimal translations I made early in the text for which better translations occurred to me later on), it doesn't include the text boxes in the process. This wastes my time and increases the likelihood of human error. I really would like Select All to mean All, including text boxes.

I don't know if there are actually legitimate uses for text boxes where the user would specifically want them to be treated as though they weren't part of the document as a whole, but I've never seen one in the wide variety of texts my clients produce, in two years doing tech support, or in all my years in school. If people do need text boxes to be treated separately, they should at least have a "Select All including text boxes and everything, really" option.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday various

1. They spent several months doing construction on my section of Yonge St., with the normally four-lane street reduced to two lanes during that time. The two-lane street was obviously less convenient for drivers, but it made jaywalking much easier. Now the street is back to four lanes, and jaywalking is still easy! I'd say a good 75% of the time there's a clear jaywalk opening within sight when I arrive at the curb, and 95% of the time I can find an opening before I hit a crosswalk. (Previously, I'd have to wait for an opening nearly every time.)

2. It seems they're selling Kindle in Canada but without a browser. I didn't know Kindle had a browser, but I would totally get one if it did! The main reason why I don't have an iphone or a blackberry is that I can't justify the price of a data plan. But apparently with Kindle there's no monthly data charges?? I am not in the market at all for an ebook reader in and of itself, but I'd totally pay $260 upfront for free web access on a device I can carry in my purse!

3. Speaking of books, I sometimes see people describe intellectual vacuity in others by saying they have no books in their house. I have very few books in my home, but I read constantly. It's just that I read from the library. My holds list is constantly maxed out, with an overflow list on my computer. But on my bookshelves there's nothing but my dictionary collection, a few stray university textbooks, Harry Potter, and whatever rereadable favourites I've found in the dollar bin at BMV. I wonder how many people actually buy everything they want to read? I'd go broke doing that.

4. I've heard a number of times of people sending their kids to private school so they won't get bullied. Why do they think there aren't bullies in private schools? Have they never met a rich kid? I have, and a representative proportion of them are bullies. I've also heard of people joining the military because they were bullied and didn't want to be bullied any more. Have they never seen a boot camp movie?

5. Sometimes you see in newspapers advice for parents whose kids are being bullied. (But there's never advice for the actual kid who's being bullied.) There's always something along the lines of "talk to your kid and help them make a plan". As though you and your kid together can make a plan to stop bullying. I don't know how to stop bullying! My parents didn't know how to stop bullying! (And if I did anything my parents advised me to, my bullies would say "Did your mommy tell you to do that?") Why do they think we could work out a viable plan? (Also, why do people have kids if they don't know what to do to stop a kid from being bullied?)

6. I had an order on Amazon set for Super Saver Shipping, to ship when everything is ready. Some of the items hadn't been released yet, so it was on hold for a bit. I decided to see how much it would cost to ship it as items became available, so I logged in, changed the shipping settings, saw the total cost was more than I cared to pay, and changed the settings back. In the time it took me to do that, one of the items changed to "ready to be shipped" status. I just checked the time stamps on the notification emails, and I had the settings changed for no more than two minutes. In this two minute window, they managed to ship me one of the items and charged me $2 for the privilege. But, on a positive note, I now have the new Eddie Izzard DVD in hand. (And therefore might be a bit quiet for a while.)

7. Conspiracy theory: employer medical plans are designed to keep you healthy while you're working, but avoid enabling you to live too too long once you're retired and collecting a pension. I have no basis for this except that isn't that what you'd do if you were a big evil corporation?

8. An informal tool we frequently use in translation is what we call a Google Vote. If you're trying to figure out which term is more commonly used or which phrase sounds more idiomatic, you google the possible choices and go with the one that has the most google hits. GoogleGoogleGoogleGoogle will simplify that immensely.

9. A baby otter playing with toys (via Malene Arpe):

10. The future feels longer and more full of potential now than it did when I was a kid. I look at how much I've learned in six years of doing translation, and I look ahead and see another 30-40 years of work ahead of me (or twice that if retirement ceases to exist) - the potential is mind-boggling! Or I look at the things I've been able to do since I started working on Entitlement, which are unremarkable in and of themselves, but if you multiply it by my remaining lifespan it's astounding!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why the TTC should start building the Eglinton Crosstown line before they finish the public consultations

I obviously don't know every single word that has been said about the Eglinton Crosstown line, but I have been keeping an eye on coverage in the transit blogosphere, and I haven't seen anyone questioning the need for the underground segment joining the Yonge line and the Spadina line between Eglinton station and Eglinton West station.

So they should just start building this section right away. Start digging tomorrow (or as soon as workable - I haven't the slightest clue how much prep is needed to build a tunnel under a busy street.) Join Eg and Eg West, and worry about the rest when we get there.

Why? Well, imagine how much easier yesterday would have been if there was a subway from Eg to Eg West. Instead of shuttle bus hell, the workaround would have been a couple of transfers and maybe an extra 10-15 minutes on a train. Have you ever tried getting from Eglinton to Yorkdale, or from Finch to Downsview? Way more annoying than it should be to travel between two subway stations. An Eglinton link would make our subway system more resiliant, make travel between the Yonge and Spadina lines exponentially easier, and significantly reduce the temptation to take the car for trips within North York. It isn't right to delay this essential link because people haven't yet reached a consensus on the precise route to take to the airport or where LRT stops in Scarborough should be located.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Things They Should Invent (like, right this minute): central repository of TTC workarounds

With today's major outage of the Yonge subway from Bloor to Eglinton, we need one central location on the internet where everyone can post how they attempted to circumnavigate that part of the subway, and how long it took.

Then next time there's a subway outage, people can go back and see which strategies worked best.

I'm sure the information is on Twitter, but I want it preserved and googleable for posterity.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Teach me about the topography of Alberta

Click here for a map of Calgary and areas to the east. It opens in a new tab or window because you're going to need to look at it and read this post at the same time. You'll probably want to zoom in one or two levels - I'm just giving you the overview to start with.

Calgary is marked, and the light grey area around it is obviously the built-up area of the city proper. Then head east along Highway 1. All the rectangles of various shades of green are most likely fields. Then keep following Highway 1 southeast. See all those dark grey areas on both sides of but especially south of Highway 1? What are all those? Zooming in provides no insight. They look barren from these satellite pictures, but there are rivers running through them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Things They Should Invent: ban bulk-only sales of nonconsumable goods

In 2003 or 2004, I needed one or two bungee cords for something. So I went to the dollar store and found a pack of 12 bungee cords for a dollar. So I bought them. I used two bungee cords for the thing I needed bungee cords for, and put the rest in the closet in case I ever needed them. But I have never needed bungee cords since then.

In 2007, I moved. Cleaning out a closet, I found all these bungee cords. I had never used them, I didn't anticipate any circumstances under which I might use them. I asked around quickly if anyone needed any bungee cords, but no one did. So they all got thrown out.

Now I know the most virtuous approach would have been to find a charity that could take bungee cords or post on freecycle or craigslist or something, but frankly I was in the middle of packing and moving and cleaning out my apartment, I didn't have time to do this. And, frankly, I got them at the dollar store. If I need more, I can get more painlessly. They just weren't worth the effort. So 10 perfectly good bungee cords got thrown out.

Life often works that way. The things we keep "just in case" get thrown out when we move or when we need to massively reorganize our closets. But I wonder how many of these things we have just because they came in bulk packages? I wonder how much it would help solve our garbage problem if it were always possible to buy only one thing when you need only one thing?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How to get people more cooperative with police questioning

In the In Death books, a lot of the people who are hesitant to talk to police have done something that's a little bit bad. However, Lt. Dallas is trying to catch a murderer, and it's more important to catch a murderer than to prosecute every little misdemeanour. So she quite often finds herself trying to convince someone that she doesn't care if they've done a little drugs or cheated on their spouse or had sex in an elevator, she just needs to know what they saw so she can stop the murderer.

When I read that Toronto police are canvassing 6,000 homes to try to find clues in Mariam Makhniashvili's disappearance, it occurred to me that - if real life does in fact work like the In Death books in this respect (it's possible it doesn't, because In Death obviously needs the cops to look sympathetic) - they might have an easier time of it if they publicize the fact that they aren't out to get you on minor things that don't really hurt anyone. For example, if they don't care if there's a bong on your coffee table, they should say so. If someone's testimony starts with "Well, I was just buying some cocaine from my dealer and I saw..." then they shouldn't prosecute for the cocaine, and when they go to see if the dealer saw anything they shouldn't prosecute for the dealing.

Perhaps they could also consider not running warrants on people they question unless it's relevant to the investigation. It would really suck if someone is open and cooperative, provides useful information and/or is readily eliminated, and then they run warrants on them and they end up getting arrested for some old shoplifting charge or something. I'm sure the police would get far better cooperation if it were public knowledge that we could trust them not to be hardasses about things that are irrelevant to their investigation.

What would be the economic impact if everyone you know got rich?

Scott Adams asks whether you'd rather get $5 million and no one else gets anything, or you get $10 million on the condition that everyone you know gets $20 million. His point is that some people aren't going to be happy if they're the poorest person they know, even if they have millions of dollars.

But, to me, the big question is: how would everyone else's $20 million affect the (objective, purchasing power) value of my $10 million?

I know a lot of people. Everyone I've ever worked with or gone to school with or been taught by, every neighbour I've ever been on a "Hi, how are you?" basis with, my massive extended family and a selection of their friends and relatives, a bunch of people on the internet - hey, guess what, you'd get $20 million too! But how far does this definition of "people you know" go? My co-worker's kid whom I've met once? The homeless guy who propositions me when I'm wearing cheap shoes and proposes marriage when I'm wearing my more expensive shoes? The national archives librarian who tracked down that obscure article my text insisted on citing? Would it be enough people to have an impact on the economy as a whole and cause prices to inflate to the point where my $10 million is insignificant?

Even if this isn't enough to have an impact on the economy as a whole, it might have a major impact on certain pockets of life. For example, a lot of people would retire if they got $20 million. I know a significant number of the translators in Toronto. I know the vast majority of the profs and staff members at my alma mater who were there when I was there. How would that affect my profession? Would I be able to command a significantly higher salary because supply has suddenly plummeted?

I also know many of the retailers/service providers in my neighbourhood. My doctor might retire. My dentist might retire. Many of the librarians at my local branch, many of the cashiers at my supermarket, several of the pharmacists at my drugstore, all the different shoe repair guys I go to. Would someone else step into their shoes, or would there suddenly be an egregious lack of services in my neighbourhood?

Another thing I might do if I came into a whole lot of money is buy a condo. The kind I covet run for about half a million, which I could never afford IRL, so the $10 million would certainly make that possible. But what if my neighbours are like-minded? What if giving a significant number of them $20 million caused them all to run out and buy condos, thus pricing the condos I covet out of my reach? But then there'd be a huge vacancy rate in my current (rental) building, and the people who move in would likely be strangers so they wouldn't have $20 million, so my rent would become more affordable and perhaps I could even upgrade to one of the better units in this building.

The other question: can I have the recipients of the $20 million know that it's my fault they got $20 million? Scott Adams says the genie who has given us this money "offers" to erase our memory, which implies that we have the option of not having it erased. If we can also have everyone believe us when we tell them we did it or, better, find out independently, that has the potential to make up for the inconvenience of somehow being the poorest person in the room. For example, I'm sure I could convince my parents and grandparents to make me their sole heir, and it's quite possible that their other descendants wouldn't even care. (After all I'm responsible for giving them $20 million each.) Before my property managers quit, and since I'm the only one who can't buy a nice new condo, maybe they could kinda sorta let me not have a rent increase this year. Even if my a hairdresser stops working, I could probably convince her to keep doing my hair (and maybe even for free) since I was responsible for her getting $20 million. I could probably convince most people reading this to paypal me a few thousand dollars if $20 million had just appeared in their bank account because of my doing. So maybe you could just float through life that way. I wonder how long the gratitude would last?

Bullying has a half-life

Something bad happened recently. A joke misfired and caused me to have a panic attack, in a very inconvenient time and place, in front of people, without access to my usual coping mechanisms. It was probably in the top five most humiliating experiences of my adult life. The person who did it immediately apologized, but the damage was done. I was a sweaty, shaky mess, everyone was looking at me, and I was generally jumpy for the next 48 hours.

But here's the cool part: I could tell that the person who did it didn't mean it. It was completely obvious. I could tell that objectively speaking the intended joke was well within the range of what I can normally dish out and take, and they'd just misestimated the impact of my phobias. So there were no hard feelings and the next time I saw them (after I'd regained my equilibrium) we were back to normal.

This is significant because my bullies would often trigger panic attacks, and then in front of the grownups would go through the motions of apologizing and/or saying "What? It was only a joke!" One of the long-term effects of having been bullied is that I'm distrustful and defensive. I tend to assume people's intentions are malicious because for so long even the most innocent of questions that in the real world are perfectly valid ways of making conversation had malicious intent behind them. But that didn't happen this time. It simply wasn't there.

Often when people tell stories like this, their thesis is "Look at me, I've chosen to forgive and move on, I'm so fucking zen and transcendent!" That's not what I'm saying here at all. The reason this is significant is I didn't choose this reaction. There was no "Well, you have to look at it from the other person's point of view," there was no "I want to be a better person than that." It just happened. I was still shaking and holding back tears and jumpy enough to snap at anyone who talked to me, but could I see that it was intended as a joke, the joke was objectively innocent, and the apology was sincere. That was my first and only interpretation of the situation, and the precedent set by my bullies didn't come into play at all.

The bullies weren't inside me. Even in a moment of weakness, they were completely irrelevant.

It never occurred to me that this could ever happen. It has never happened before. But this probably means it can happen again. I doubt they'll ever be completely gone, but maybe one day I'll be able to go days and weeks and months without ever feeling the bullies.

If this is what it means to get older, bring it on!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Things They Should Invent: real-time live dynamic congestion charges

There is talk of introducing congestion charges in Toronto.

Wouldn't it be cool if they could make congestion charges vary in real time based on how congested the streets actually are? We don't have the infrastructure on hand right this minute to that, but the technology exists. I'm sure there are ways to track how busy the streets are. (Transponders? Car-counting devices in the road? Recognition technology in the traffic cams?) They could use SMS/Twitter etc. to disseminate real-time information on what the congestion charges are and post historical patterns online so people could predict whether it's worth their while.

It would also be cool if the congestion charges went directly to building more transit infrastructure, so the more congestion charges people pay, the more public transit options get built. Not sure how feasible that would be because it would make the funding less predictable and wouldn't provide any operating costs for the infrastructure that it builds, but it would be really cool if it could be made to work that way.

A possible solution to that problem would be for the different levels of government to commit a certain amount of funding, but they get reimbursed from the congestion charges. So the funding is predictable, but the more congestion charges are paid the less comes out of taxpayers' pockets. I wonder how the free marketeers would feel about that? But on the other hand, it doesn't have the incentive value of more congestion charges collected = less need for driving.

I'm also thinking it might be useful (from the perspective of selling congestion charges to drivers) to spin congestion charges as exclusivity or queue-jumping or something. There are people who are willing to pay money not to have to wait in line for things. So spin it as a way to keep Those People, Other People off the road.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Half-formed theory: men can smell rapists

When I was 9 years old, I was allowed to go trickertreating without parental accompaniment for the first time in my life. After many many lectures on safety, I went around the neighbourhood with another neighbourhood girl, collecting candy, feeling very cool walking around in the scary dark without a grownup. Then we got to this one house where there were two great big scary teenage boys in the driveway playing a very violent-looking game of basketball. We quickly consulted with each other. What should we do? They're Big And Scary! Look at how they're body-checking each other to get at the basketball - they totally look like the kind of people who would beat someone up! (At the time, beating someone up was the worst thing we could imagine.) And we'd totally have to walk right past them to ring the doorbell! So we decided to skip that house, and hurried along to the next house. But the big scary teenage boys saw us skip their house, and shouted at us "SNOBS!" OMG! They saw us! They're shouting something at us! What do we do? So we went straight home to my house (because it was closer) and told my parents what happened. My parents were like "What's the big deal? They were just playing basketball to pass the time between giving out candy."

Thinking back on it as an adult, they were totally just playing basketball to pass the time between giving out candy. But my 9-year-old self couldn't tell that. She saw large intimidating man-sized boys behaving in a way that was unusual and unpredictable, outside of the norm for the context, and seemed unnecessarily violent. She was scared, so she decided to remove herself from the situation. She also saw that when she went to remove herself from this situation that she found scary, the large intimidating guys tried to shame her into coming back. So while she did completely misread the situation, isn't that what you'd want a 9-year-old to do with the information she had on hand at the time?

Now, as a mental exercise, I want you to think about how you would explain to my 9-year-old self, in terms she can understand, why exactly those boys were safe. Give her clear specifics without any adult "Because I said so!" involved. You want to empower her to autonomously make more accurate decisions in the future without putting her at risk. Remember, Paul Bernardo is going to turn up in just a couple of years. So give her the information she needs to reduce false positives without introducing false negatives.

That's a tall order, isn't it? I was there, I saw the boys through my nine-year-old self's eyes, I can see them now through adult eyes, I see exactly why my child-self saw them as dangerous, and I can see them now as harmless. But I can't articulate in a way that my child-self would grok why exactly they're harmless. "They're just playing basketball!" But playing basketball wouldn't make a person harmless. "They're just teenagers!" But teenagers aren't automatically harmless, especially not to a preteen child. "They were just being violent with each other as part of the basketball game. They wouldn't hurt kids trickertreating." Yes, that's my read on the situation as an adult, but how exactly do you tell? I've been thinking about this for some time, and I still can't articulate it clearly. It might have something to do with the fact that on Halloween there are all kinds of adult eyes on the street, so if those guys had been up to no good they would have been more stealthy about it or waited until later at night, but I still wouldn't quite be comfortable telling a 9-year-old that without further precisions.

That Halloween night was the first of several false positives I've gotten when attempting to assess whether a particular strange man is a threat to me. There have been maybe 5-10 false positives over the years, but no false negatives. A man behaves unusually, or invades my personal space, or just gives off a wrong vibe, so I raise my shields and take evasive manoeuvres. Then I either find out that there was a perfectly good explanation for his strange behaviour, or I remove myself from the situation without him actively attempting to hurt me. None of that is noteworthy, that's just everyday life. What is noteworthy is that I often have other men - men who were completely uninvolved in and have no particular investment in the original situation - scold me for behaving so rudely to the strange man who pinged my creepdar. They really seem rather disproportionately offended that I'd take evasive manoeuvres against a man who wasn't a rapist. That was always really WTF to me. Can't they tell that I have no way of knowing who is and isn't a rapist, and only have my gut instinct to work with? (c.f. Schrödinger's Rapist.)

This all came to mind with a recent internet meme, Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed To Work. Again, the reaction from some men (not all men, but I only ever saw this reaction from men) was the same as the reaction some men have to my false positives - rather disproportionately offended, as if to say "How dare you show this to men who aren't rapists!" This reaction really seemed bizarrely disproportionate, as though there was something else going on that I couldn't see. So I've been thinking about this a really long time, and come up with the following theory:

Men can smell rapists.

Specifically, there are some men who can just tell by gut instinct, far better than I can, whether another man is a rapist, just like we as adults can tell better than my 9-year-old self could that the teenage boys playing basketball were harmless. Extrapolating to a general theory, men have better creepdar than women, at least in terms of avoiding false positives. (I have no data for false negatives.) So these men with the more effective creepdar think our creepdar works the same as theirs, thereby assuming that we can tell that dude isn't a rapist just as easily as they can, and therefore are taking evasive manoeuvres against some dude who clearly isn't a rapist due to some technical violation or perceived slight. Meanwhile, we're assuming that men's creepdar works the same as ours, so what we're hearing from them is that we should ignore our gut and take greater risks with our instincts so as not to inadvertently offend someone.

So what do we do with this? It sounds like I'm teeing up to saying that women should just listen to men's judgment on whether other men are safe or not. That's not workable. As we all know, some men are rapists, some men have different concept of what does and does not constitute rape, and it's certainly not unprecedented for a guy to vouch for his buddy to help him get laid. On the other side of things, some men are overprotective of women they care about, and might be reading false positives themselves. (Oddly, I've never seen a man get similarly disproportionately offended at another man's false positive on behalf of a woman he cares about.) There's also the problem that the vast majority of hitting-on happens when the woman is unaccompanied by a man, so the disproportionate offence/retroactive creepdar reading happens after the fact.)

So I think what we do need to do is just be aware of this difference in creepdar effectiveness, and communicate. If you're a man and you see a woman taking evasive manoeuvres with another man who clearly isn't a rapist, start thinking about how to articulate precisely why you can tell he isn't a rapist - to the same degree of specificness and with the same care to avoiding false negatives as you'd use in explaining why the basketball boys were safe to my 9-year-old self. Not why he "might not" be a rapist, not hypothetical explanations for his questionable behaviour; you need to describe the actual tangible ways you can tell for certain. You might not be able to articulate this right away, but just think about it. Try to figure it out so you can articulate it next time. Conversely, if you're a woman and a man scolds you or otherwise seems pissed off that you took evasive manoeuvres on what ended up being a false positive, ask him for specifics about how he knows the guy in question was safe. He might not be able to articulate it right away, but have him think about it.

And if you're a man and women seem to be getting false positive readings from you, think about why they should be able to tell that you're safe, and work on highlighting those aspects. (Schrödinger's Rapist can also help you avoid inadvertently giving off false positives.)

Adventures in sleeptracking

I've been using the Sleeptracker for some time now, and does what it says it does. The problem, as with most things in life, is me. The Sleeptracker wakes me up when I'm very nearly awake, just rolling over to fall back asleep, the kind of situation where if there wasn't an alarm I wouldn't even register it as awake. The problem is the first thought that goes through my head is "Hey, no fair, I'm not done yet!" I'm in a nice happy place where I can just float around in my head, and the sleeptracker has interrupted it. And since it's right on my wrist, it's very easy to just turn it off and go back to sleep.

Now, I am less groggy when I can convince myself to get out of bed after waking up to the Sleeptracker than when I wake up to a standard alarm. And even if I roll back over and close my eyes, I'm generally closer to the surface and sometimes don't even fall back asleep, I just lie there for a bit floating around in my head. This does have value - if the Sleeptracker wakes me up at 5:42 and I don't get out of bed, I'll wake up better to my regular alarm at 6 - but it's far from panacea. I'm not jumping out of bed bright and cheerful to meet the day, and because I know that it isn't really time to wake up yet I do need a standard alarm as backup.

Also, a potential problem if you have really skinny wrists. I bought the men's version (because that's what was available on ebay), and it's just barely small enough for me, with no room to punch extra holes in the strap. The circumference of my wrist is 5 3/4". In other words, I am not particularly petite but do have disproportionately skinny wrists. Therefore, if you are petite and have disproportionately skinny wrists, or are not a full-grown adult, the men's version may be too big for you. I'm not certain to what extent this would affect functioning of the device. It's based on an accelerometer and does tell you to fasten it with the watch tight against your wrist, but I don't know to what extent a too-loose watch moves around. I also don't know how much smaller the women's version can get. But my point is, if your wrist circumference is less than 5 3/4", see if you can find out if the women's version goes smaller, and/or what happens if it isn't fastened tightly, before dropping a significant amount of money on this thing.

In summary, it does what it says it does but isn't a miracle, and do your research and ask questions if you have really skinny wrists.

Pondering the ethics of H1N1 vaccine

The original plan was to get vaccinated as soon as I'm allowed, since I'm not in a priority group but early reports were this flu does seem to affect women in my age group more severely. Plus, of course, there's my general social responsibility not to make myself a vector.

But now I'm wondering if it's ethical for me to get vaccinated as soon as I'm allowed, or if I should wait a bit. Why? Because if I got sick, I could very easily completely quarantine myself. I live alone, I have paid sick days, I could easily get groceries and such delivered. Doctors are now allowed to do telephone consultations, and if my doctor thought it was appropriate to prescribe Tamiflu or similar I could get a prescription delivered. (Q: But wouldn't you be infecting the delivery people? A: I'd instruct them to leave the stuff outside the door.) Unless I took a turn for the worse and needed to be hospitalized, I could very easily get through my entire convalescence without being a vector.

So maybe even after I'm allowed to get vaccinated, I should wait a few days to give people who can't quarantine themselves a chance for first dibs?

Parental forgetfulness run amok

I've blogged before about the concept that I call parental forgetfulness, where the instant people reproduce they seem to lose the ability to identify with children or to recall first-person memories of how they thought and felt as children.

But this is the worst example I have ever seen.

Like every distressed woman, I did what came naturally. I called my friends. "You wear high heels and makeup," said one, a psychiatrist and mother. "You are clearly not opposed to feminine things."

"I went through that when I was a kid; I turned out okay," a Bay St. lawyer said.

"Just don't tell her it's bad," advised senior bureaucrat mom. "People always emphasize boy things as good and girl things as bad."

Partway through the frantic dialling, I realized I'd hired the wrong advisers. Who knows what their kids will grow up like? I needed to speak to their mothers. Their parenting decisions have paid off. They raised strong, independent, successful women, despite Disney's insipid infiltration.

The author knows exactly what these people turned out like, she's talking to them as adults, they're her friends. And they're giving her first-person memories of what their parents did and how that made them think and feel. Information straight from the source, from right inside the former child's head complete with the big picture of how they turned out as an adult and whatever drama they might have gone through in between. And the disregards all this and goes to their mothers, who can describe the empirically observable outcomes but can't tell what was going on inside the kid's head.

Sometimes I wonder which is cause and which is effect. Do people forget what it's like to be a child when they have children of their own? Or do people who remember what it's like to be a child choose not to have children of their own?

Wesley Crusher

I've recently been reading and enjoying podcasts of Wil Wheaton's Memories of the Future, and I'm particularly enjoying seeing his thoughts on the character of Wesley Crusher.

This also has me thinking about Wesley Crusher from an adult perspective and man, I gotta say: WTF?

Wesley Crusher made sense to me the first time around. I was in my preteens surrounded by adults who were far more idiotic than they should be. If Wesley hadn't existed, my fledgling attempts at fan fiction (although I didn't yet know it was called that) would have had to invent him. (Although I would have invented him as a curly-haired girl.)

But the thing is, Wesley Crusher wasn't invented by an adolescent fanfic author. He was invented by Gene Roddenberry, who was very much a full-fledged adult at the time. (I think he was well into his 60s?)

Looking at it from an adult perspective, I'm really surprised an adult writer would come up with a teenage Mary Sue for use in an adult context. You need to infiltrate Hogwarts? Sure, bring out the 17-year-old transfer student. But you're on a starship? Why not a newly minted ensign, fresh out of the Academy, who quickly rises through the ranks? If you need them to be a wunderkind, they could have also done a PhD in Warp Theory alongside.

I wish we had more information on why exactly Gene Roddenberry's Mary Sue ended up being a teenager.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remembrance Day blogathon

One thing I've always hated about life is that if you don't go around gloating about what you're doing, people assume you're ignorant.

When I was in Montessori school, I wanted to play with these beads, but the teacher wouldn't let me because she said you had to be able to count to 10 to play with them. I could totally count to 10 - I could count to 100! But back then, at the age of 3 or 4, I didn't realize that she wanted me to show her I could count to 10, and just slunk off sad and confused.

When I was in Grade 2, I got really frustrated with how slowly my classmates read aloud. So rather than wait for them to struggle through a sentence, I'd read ahead and see how the story ended, then go onto the next story in the reader. By the time it was my turn to read, I was three stories ahead and had no idea where we were. So when it came time to put us into reading groups, my teacher put me into the blue group, which was the second-lowest. I was confused and rather humiliated, as I felt like I could read fluently. Eventually my parents intervened and I was bumped up to the green reading group, which was the highest, but not until after they'd all finished learning how to do cat's cradles.

When I was in Grade 7, a girl at my school was diagnosed with cancer, and some of her friends started raising money so she could buy a wig. I gave a significant amount of money to this fund - something like $5 or $10 when my weekly allowance at the time was $2 or $3. Then I came home from school and my father said he was writing his yearly cheque to the United Way, and asked if I'd like to add a donation. I said no thank you. So I got a lecture on why you have to be charitable. I really resented being treated that way just because I preferred to do the right thing quietly and humbly without gloating (I was still Catholic at the time and this was a virtue - c.f. Luke 18: 9-14 the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector) rather than giving money to an organization that seemed to spend an awful lot of money on giving its donors public bragging rights. (Which, incidentally, is the reason why my father has since stopped donating to the United Way.) That grated so much that since then I have only ever made anonymous charitable donations.

I got to thinking of all this because tomorrow is Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day is one of those things where people assume I'm ignorant when I don't go around holding forth at length about what's inside my head. It all started when I was in high school and our school band provided music for our local cenotaph ceremony. For four years (I wasn't in senior band in Grade 9), I saw the whole ceremony firsthand, from live on "stage". And the more I saw of it, the less comfortable it was. It seemed uncomfortably glamourous, with too much emphasis on the fact that the veterans were heroes and not enough on the waste and horror and pointlessness of war. (I've written some about that glamourization here.) I wasn't getting any sense of "Never Again," but I was detecting certain connotations of "and if you join the military, you can be a hero too!" So after high school I quietly stopped wearing a poppy. I knew Remembrance Day was really important to various people for various reasons and didn't want to be an ass about it, but I just didn't feel right playing along myself. I have since done a lot more research, especially about WWI (which was the original reason for Remembrance Day), and the more I learn the better I feel about my choice not to participate. The problem is, the standard assumption when I don't wear a poppy is that I'm completely ignorant of my history. In reality, when I was ignorant I was proudly wearing my poppy over my heart and hoping those old men in the navy jackets (who were OMG HEROES!) would notice that I remembered to say blow not grow.

Then today I saw an article about a revamped citizenship guide that would include "greater emphasis on Canada's military history and on the poppy as a symbol of remembrance and of Canada’s sacrifice in the First World War." That made me go "Huh?" because "sacrifice" implies that it's to achieve some goal, and the more I learn about WWI the less I agree with that assessment. I started reading up on it shortly after I finished university, when I realized that I didn't actually understand why it happened. Yeah, yeah, yeah, assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. But how does that lead to a war? So I read and read and read, and the more I read the more I came to realize that it was a pissing match. Countries were declaring war on each other because they wanted to go off and have a jolly good adventure or because they didn't want their penises to fall off. It didn't need to be a war, even under standards by which it is sometimes necessary to have wars. And young men, unaware of the hell that awaited them, went off to enlist to have a jolly good adventure with visions of dashing uniforms and shiny buttons dancing in their heads - the very kinds of images the heroic glamourization of our local cenotaph ceremony might give an impressionable young person.

I learned in History class that initially Remembrance Day was created by WWI vets (then Great War vets) with this very sentiment - that war was senseless and wasteful and foolish and Never Again. It wasn't a jolly good adventure, it was hell. So thinking about this, I found myself wondering if it was more important to real-life WWI vets that they be viewed as heroes (even if it meant WWI being seen as worthwhile) or that future generations see just how pointless war is (even if it meant that the vets don't get treated as heroes). Unfortunately, the last WWI vet in my family died when I was like 10 years old, and I wasn't quite at the point where these questions occurred to me yet. (I was still early enough in my education that I was all proud of myself for memorizing 14-18 and 39-45.)

But I did think of a story my grandmother once told me about the first time she voted. When she was young, the voting age was 21 (although apparently soldiers and vets under the age of 21 were also allowed to vote.) So by the time she was allowed to vote, she was already married with one small child and another one on the way. After a long day doing housework and chasing a toddler while heavily pregnant, the last thing she wanted was to squeeze her swollen feet into shoes, corral the toddler into a stroller, and walk all the way to the polling place. But when she told her husband this, he freaked. It was the maddest she'd ever seen him in their two years of marriage. He said this is what he fought for in WWII - this is what his buddies died for - so she was damn well going to go and vote. So she did, and is now very vociferous about making sure her descendants vote.

The goals in the other branch of my family were much more prosaic. They had spent the last several generations getting buffeted back and forth between German occupation and Russian occupation (with some of my ancestors having been, legally and honourably, conscripted on both sides at different points during WWI). All the surviving members of this branch of the family were civilians in occupied Europe during WWII and caught behind the iron curtain in its aftermath. For them, what Canada stands for is food - not having to wait in line for bread, supermarkets fully stocked whenever you want. I can best honour these ancestors by eating well and being strong and healthy, which is neither here nor there. (They'd also like me to be a devout Catholic and sprog lots of adorable babies, but we have to be realistic here.)

Interesting as this all is, I can't spend tomorrow eating and voting, not least of which because there aren't any elections for me to vote in tomorrow. (Things They Should Invent: hold elections on Remembrance Day to honour what our dead soldiers were fighting for?) So I thought some more about this. What were my ancestors actually, in real life, not in political spin, sacrificing for me to have?

I ran through a number of ideas, and then it came to me: freedom of expression. What I'm doing right here and now. I'm sure my ancestors living through and/or fighting against various flavours of fascist oppression in Europe would be quite gratified to know that any thought, idea, or experience I wish to share I can instantly post where the whole world can see it.

So tomorrow, in honour of the sacrifices made on my behalf, is blogathon day. Not about Remembrance Day, about everything and anything. A massive deluge of thought, belief, opinion, and expression. Hopefully I'll get to posting everything that's festering in my brain and my drafts folder, but if not there's at least gonna be a whole lot of words. My ancestors who sacrificed on my behalf probably wouldn't be thrilled with everything I have to say, but I'm sure they'd love the fact that I'm able to say it like this.

So that's what I'm doing tomorrow, and after much reflection I feel it is appropriate. However, I really resent the fact that if I don't explain this whole story, people will interpret my well-thought-out tribute as just playing around on the internet, ignorant of the significance of the day. That's almost as irksome as being put in the blue reading group and missing out on learning cat's cradle.