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.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

How privilege works?

I was shocked recently when I found out that someone I know who is older than me, more educated than I am, and has successfully raised multiple children to adolescence didn't know how vaccines work. I'm not talking anything complicated, just the basic fact that it introduces a small, controlled amount of the virus in question so your immune system learns to recognize that and knows how to fight it. (I know that it's more complicated than that and they don't always use the actual virus in question, but you see what I'm saying in general terms, as a very rudimentary description of the concept.)

This shocked me because I learned how vaccines work when I was a kid, probably around the age of 4. My mother explained it to me (in a simplified, child-appropriate way like my explanation above) so I would understand why I had to get a needle.

I was so surprised that a proper grownup didn't know this basic fact of life that I got talking with my mother about it.

Mom: "Well, not everyone has as much education..."
Me: "I didn't learn this from education, I learned it from you when I was like 4. Where did you learn it from?"
Mom: **thinks** "I learned it from my father when I was a kid and had to get a needle."
Me: "And where did Grandpa learn it from?"
Mom: **thinks** "He must have learned it in university."

So because my grandfather studied various science in university like 65 years ago, this piece of knowledge has, in our family, gone from being higher scientific education to conventional wisdom passed on from parent to child, like nursery rhymes and bible stories and household hints. It doesn't feel like privilege, it doesn't feel like rarefied scientific knowledge, it doesn't feel like a concept that you have to go to university to learn. It's just something your mommy tells you when you're a kid, like how to braid your hair.

My maternal grandfather has 16 direct descendants - 4 children and 12 grandchildren - and all of us have known how vaccines work since childhood. Any children we might have or might ever be responsible for will also know how vaccines work since childhood. Even if none of us had ever pursued higher education, we'd all still be in possession of this information that originally comes from higher education, whereas our peers who don't have an ancestor who learned about vaccines in university don't have this information before it comes up in school

I also find myself wondering how this relates to Lareau's concept of entitlement. Simply by growing up in a household where my parents could explain the reasons behind necessary medical procedures, I get the idea that I'm allowed to know the reasons behind any medical procedures I might be ordered to undergo. I'd totally ask for an explanation if ever instructed to undergo a medical procedure I don't understand, and I wouldn't even feel like I'm exercising entitlement in doing that. But perhaps if you grew up getting a needle because you have to, because they won't let you go to school if you don't, perhaps limited to the explanation "It's so you don't get the flu," you might be accustomed to undergoing medical procedures you don't fully understand, and it might never even occur to you to ask for an explanation. Then when you have to take your children to the doctor, it's totally "Because I said so" or "Listen to the doctor, he's a doctor."

What happens to unemployed youth when they stop being youth?

These past few months, I've seen a number of articles on youth unemployment, generally referring to people under the age of 24 and often talking about people who have never been employed. Some of these articles have been to the effect that these unemployed youth are hanging around making trouble and generally being up to no good (read in a "Kids Today! Get off my lawn!" tone of voice.)

What I'm wondering: Okay, so there are people under 24 who are unemployed and may never have had a job and perhaps are making trouble and being up to no good instead. So what happens to them when they turn 25 and age out of this youth demographic and into the broader 25-54 demographic? Obviously they don't magically find a job on their 25th birthday. So it seems like we have or are going to have soon a significant group of people in the 25-30 range who have never had a job. What happens there? Do they eventually manage to integrate into the workforce? (If so, how?) Or are we eventually going to have people in the 30-35 age range who have never been employed? Do the commentators who think unemployed people under 24 are making trouble also think that unemployed people 25-30 are making trouble? Unemployed people 30-35? If not, what causes them to stop making trouble?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Things They Should Invent: car seats for dogs

Based on the people I know who have both cars and dogs (a small sample), it seems standard operating procedure is either to put your dog in the car, perhaps tell him to sit, and leave him to his own devices, or to put your dog in the crate and put the crate in the car, perhaps securing it with the seat belt.

They really should invent either a car seat-type device for dogs, or a crate-specific way of securing the crate (similar to how baby seats attach to the car), or something so that Mr. Puppyface doesn't get hurt if there's a car accident.

I'm a bad evil terrible person and this post is in horrible taste

But I keep thinking of this:

"There's people with guns out there, sir."

Friday, November 06, 2009

Post your window-washing advice here

Here is my (outdoor) window-washing technique:

Washing with water and vinegar from a bucket using a sponge, working vertically. Follow each column with a squeegee, follow the squeegee with drying with paper towels.

This has worked better for me than using Windex (and, obviously, better than without a squeegee and without drying).

But it still leaves streaks, which, because I have big windows, sometimes makes it worse than if I hadn't washed my windows at all.

If you can wash windows without leaving streaks, how would you improve on my technique? (Note that I don't have access to a hose or any of the usual outdoor equipment.)

Questions for grownups

1. Are "funny" greeting cards getting less funny? I found they were funnier when I was a teenager. One could argue that my sense of humour has become more sophisticated, but I never found fart jokes and saggy boob jokes funny, not even when I was 9. (This round of birthday card shopping, I saw THREE separate cards with pictures of/references to bras and a caption about "have an uplifting birthday." THREE! Between that and the early xmas decorations and leftover Halloween stuff waiting to jump out and scare me, I am officially no longer accepting any more Scorpios in my life.)

2. Do people place holds at the library way more now than before the advent of the internet? When I was a kid, I'd go to the library, browse the shelves, and check out whatever appealed to me. Now, I have an epic hold list, and whenever I hear of a book that piques my interest I add it. I assume this difference is due to the fact that I can readily place holds on the internet, but there's the possibility that it's just child vs. adult reading habits.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The / Eddie Izzard mystery

So I pre-ordered Eddie Izzard: Live from Wembley on The release date was yesterday. Normally when I preorder something from Amazon I receive it on the release date, or worst case it ships on the release date.

Then I receive an email from Amazon saying that there's a delay in my order, and the new ETA is Nov. 18 - Nov. 23. I appreciate the notice, but I'm super curious as to what exactly happen. Did they run out? Is there a flaw in the distribution chain? A brief perusal of the fandom doesn't turn up any other instances of this happening. Is it just me?

And to add to the mystery, there are now two Eddie Izzard: Live from Wembley DVDs on one released yesterday, which I ordered, and one with a January 2010 release date. I can't find any evidence of this second DVD with the January release date from any other retailer, including US Amazon.

This is all very odd. I've never had anything like this happen with Amazon, or with Eddie's material, or with preordered new releases of any sort.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Things They Should Invent: lemon creme brulee pie

Meringue doesn't taste like it looks like it should taste like.

However, creme brulee tastes like meringue looks like it should taste like.

So why not combine lemon and creme brulee and have something that tastes like what lemon meringue pie should taste like?

Places where I don't think you should shop

This is a continually-updated list of places where I don't think you should shop:

- Shopper's Drug Mart
- Leon's
- Starbucks
- Carlton Cards
- Indigo
- Kitchen Stuff Plus
- Yonge Eglinton Centre
- Ikea
- Canadian Tire
- Sheppard Centre

Q: Why don't I think you should shop at these places?
A: Because they're doing xmas advertising and/or decorations too early.

Things They Should Invent: vaccine in pill form

Wouldn't it be easier and save a whole lot of time and drama if we could all just administer our own vaccine? Problem: I don't know about you, but I don't know how to administer an injection.

So what they should be working on: vaccine in pill form or some other self-administrable form.

Alternative: come up with a way to teach people self-injection as a matter of course (in school? by family doctors?)

Currently wondering: outside of mass vaccination contexts, if your doctor writes you a prescription for a particular vaccine or some other medication that has to be administered by injection, are you allowed to inject it yourself if you know how (e.g. you're a medical professional yourself or whatever?)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Blast from the past

When I was a kid I thought this was a plausible situation:

I wonder if the Disney princesses are princesses for the same reason children's protagonists have to be underparented

I often see complaints that Disney is setting a bad example for little girls by having all their protagonists be princesses.

I wonder to what extent this is a plot requirement?

In general, protagonists in children's literature/TV/movies are underparented. This is basically a plot requirement. You can't get into many interesting adventures when your lifestyle involves being driven to playdates in a minivan.

I wonder if the Disney princesses also have to be or become princesses for similar reasons?

For example, being a princess enables Pocahontas and Ariel to run/swim around singing and daydreaming, which leads to them having adventures and meeting their men. If Pocahontas was a prole, she'd probably be too busy tanning hides and farming corn, and if Ariel was a prole she'd probably be too busy doing whatever the mermaid equivalent was. The stories are about how they get to have adventures and defy family convention, and they simply wouldn't have room to do that if they weren't princesses, just like how if they wouldn't have room to do that if they weren't under-parented.

Cinderella and Belle had to become princesses to give them a happily ever after within their historical contexts. Cinderella had to escape from her family to have a happily ever after, and the only way to really do that was to marry. An alternative would have been to have her marry some sweet peasant boy and then her life is full of hard work but happy, but to make that look like a happily-ever-after they'd also have to have some rich, hunky, evil prince type who also wants to marry her. And there's also the problem that Cinderella's family of origin is somewhat upper class and could likely block a marriage to a peasant boy, whereas they couldn't possibly block a marriage to a prince.

Belle actually did want to avoid an undesirable marriage to Gaston, but the only options available to her would be for her father to create a successful invention, or for her to marry someone else. And she does this in an unconventional-for-fairytales way by a) seeing Gaston as an undesirable mate despite the fact that he's conventionally attractive, b) falling in love with a man (Beast) who isn't conventionally attractive. (Yes, he tranforms back into a conventionally attractive man at the end, but a) that's the perfect metaphor for how love works, and b) you couldn't expect them to consummate their marriage with him in beast form.) Watching it as a kid, I interpreted it as she had the open-mindedness to go for the non-attractive guy that everyone is shunning rather than the popular and attractive but evil guy, and is thereby rewarded with a happily-ever-after that includes love and security and no longer being dependent on the success of her father's capricious inventions.

(Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are also often included on the list of Disney princesses that are problematic, but I don't remember enough about the Disney versions of this story. I don't think I ever saw the Disney Sleeping Beauty, and all I took away from childhood viewings of Snow White is the dwarves' general silliness. The romantic subplot wasn't of interest.)

I should add that, watching these movies as a kid, I never perceived the protagonists' beauty as an essential part of why they got their happily-ever-after. I perceived it as because they were sweet and kind and charming. So that did make me feel a bit bad because I'm not and never will be that sweet and kind and charming, but I was already getting that guilt from catholicism. And the fact that they were princesses was no more unrealistic than the fact that the protagonists in all my children's and young adult books could run around without parents.