Monday, February 28, 2011

How to set politicians' salaries

There's been some debate recently here in Toronto about whether our city councillors should get a pay raise. On one hand, they already get way more money than most of us and the city is short on money. On the other hand, it would be morally wrong for me to oppose a cost of living increase for anyone. I don't object to politicians being paid more than me. They don't have job security, they're subject to public scrutiny, and usually have to quit (or at least take unpaid leave from) their regular job just to run for office (with no guarantee of being elected.) But there needs to be some way to make their pay reflect the average citizen's situation.

So here's what I came up with.

Each politician's salary is the sum of the following numbers:

  • the median individual income in the jurisdiction they represent
  • the median individual income of all people represented by their level of government
  • the median individual income of the poorest 20% in the jurisdiction they represent
  • the median individual income of the poorest 20% represented by their level of government

(For the purposes of this post, "the jurisdiction they represent" means a ward at the municipal level and a riding at the provincial or federal level. "People represented by their level of government" means everyone in the city, province, or country at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels respectively.)

If the sum of these four numbers is not within a range that's commensurate with current salaries for that particular government, then the total is multiplied by a coefficient. The coefficient is whatever number will make the average salary under the new system equal to the average salary under the old system. The coefficient will then remain constant year to year.

The result of all this is that politicians would have an immediate personal investment in the fortunes of their own constituents and their level of government as a whole. The poorest 20% receive extra weight to make sure we don't create an incentive to make the very rich excessively richer (thus bringing up averages) while ignoring ordinary people. Similarly, we're using median instead of mean because of what we learned here, although I'd accept mean if there's a sound argument for it.

Possible issue: under this system, representatives of ridings with higher incomes would get more money.

Possible mitigating factor: maybe that will just mean that their income is commensurate with the cost of living in the riding, so it might all even out.

Another possible issue: "star" candidates who are parachuted in to ridings where they don't live because the parties think they can win will have more incentive to pick richer ridings.

Possible mitigating factors: 1. Might this already be happening anyway? 2. Would it actually affect the results that citizens get?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

More things I learned from my elders

Certain social conventions become detrimental once you start losing your faculties. For example, some people, if they need something, drop hints or have tacit expectations. And some people, when asked if they need or want something, say "Oh, no, I'm fine" even if they do want it. In some cultures, this is even the etiquette. The offerer offers whether they mean it or not, and the recipient declines whether they want to or not. Then, if the offerer really means it, they offer again, and if the recipient really wants it they accept.

But this causes problems when you're an elder and you're being asked whether you need help with something. When your instinct is to decline, you might end up not getting the help you need. Or, conversely, if your caregivers are accustomed to your ways, you might end up getting excessively nagged about whether you need help with something, or even getting said "help" given to you against your will, with the thought that you must be just trying to be polite. I've also seen hint-droppers, losing their faculties, who have thought they dropped hints but didn't actually.

Another thing people often do as a social lubricant is smile and nod, and then go off and do whatever they want. This often works in regular life, but it can cause problems when you're not able to entirely fend for yourself. For example, an elder in my life, who is losing her faculties, is supposed to eat a certain food item every day for various medical reasons. Caregivers noticed that her stocks of this food weren't depleting. Is she forgetting to eat them? Does she think she's eaten it already but hasn't? Is she simply choosing not to because she doesn't like it? They can't tell. They can't find the right balance between respecting her right to choose to eat healthy or not and reminding her to do things she intends to but forgets, because they can't tell what she's really thinking.

As I blogged about before, it seems that elders reach a point where they become incapable of learning new things. This includes interpersonal skills. So what I need to work in is developing, and making habitual and instinctive, the ability to ask people very directly for what I want when I want or need things, even taking the initiative in doing this. And I also need to work on always telling the truth about the extent to which I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, at least to doctors and stuff. Then hopefully it will be in my skill set when I need it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Things They Should Invent: unhealthy foods must always be available in single servings

Building on my last food incentives post, I'm defining "unhealthy food" to mean food where the percentage daily value of saturated or trans fat, sodium, or cholesterol (and any other bad nutrients I'm forgetting) exceeds the percentage daily value of calories. For example, a food where a standard serving contains 10% of your daily calories but 20% of your daily sodium is considered unhealthy.

For foods that meet these criteria, we introduce two rules:

1. These foods must be available for purchase in single servings wherever they are sold, a single serving being whatever size is used to calculate the per-serving value in the nutrition information box. They can be available in larger quantities as well, but single servings must always be manufactured and sold. Retailers would not be allowed to sell a six-serving package without selling single-serving packages.

2. These foods cannot be subject to bulk discounts or lower unit prices for larger packages. The six-serving package must cost at least six times as much as six single-serving packages.

This will reduce the likelihood of having unhealthy food sitting around the house because of a single craving.

For example, I absolutely adore President's Choice 7 Cheese Lasagna. No other lasagna, including homemade efforts to duplicate it by people with excellent cooking skills, has been able to satisfy that particular craving. However, it's very high in fat and sodium, so I only allow myself to have it a couple of times a year. The problem is that the smallest package it comes in is six standard servings, and my tastebuds very much want to eat the whole thing in one sitting even though I know my body will regret it. I put half of it straight in the freezer as soon as it's made, but I still end up eating it within the next few days because I can see it every time I open the freezer. So because I bought something to fulfill a single craving, I end up eating six unhealthy meals within a week.

I'd imagine this sort of thing happens rather a lot to many people. You get something and eat a reasonable amount, but then you have leftovers, and you have to eat the leftovers before they go bad. If we could buy a single serving to satisfy a craving, then we'd only have one reasonably-sized unhealthy meal instead of a giant unhealthy meal or a week's worth of regular unhealthy meals.

At first glance this sounds like it would produce far more packaging to be thrown out, but that might not be true because many people would be buying just a single serving instead of a larger package. For example, the large lasagna has a cardboard box, a tray, and plastic wrap. The single-serving lasagna would have a smaller cardboard box, a smaller tray, and less plastic wrap. Because I'm buying by the craving, I'd be buying just one single-serving lasagna to replace the six-serving lasagna. I'm not buying six single-serving lasagnas.

An argument often heard against health-based food controls is that it takes away consumer choice. This one doesn't; this one increases consumer choice. Currently, we don't have the option of buying certain foods in small amounts. This would give us the option, and would in no way prevent people from buying more than one serving.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Things They Should Study: how comprehensible are phone answering scripts?

I'd say about half the time I call a business or office where an actual human answers the phone, I don't understand what they say when they answer. They just rattle it off so quickly I can't catch the information I'm looking for.

And, conversely, it's quite possible I rattle off my own phone answering script so quickly that people can't understand it. I recently had a guy repeatedly call my work number wanting help with his phone card, and I couldn't seem to convince him that I couldn't help him and he had the wrong number. In retrospect, he probably didn't catch a word of my greeting and thought he was calling the phone card place.

I think this problem might be due in part to the fact that callers don't always know how the phone is going to be answered. I could answer my phone with "Hello?" or with my name or with "Translation" (and, because it's translation, I could answer in another language that the wrong number is totally unprepared for.) But conversely, because we answer the phone several times a day, we tend to rattle it off automatically, like how most people rattle off "ThanksHaveANiceDay" at the end of a cash register transaction.

Someone should research this

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Theory: insecurity in one's own philosophy is the root of all evil

I blogged recently about how various patriarchal cultures are operating suboptimally essentially as a result of the patriarchs' insecurity in their own philosophy.

It occurs to me that many of the evils of the world are the result of powerful regimes being insecure in their own philosophies.

I was recently in a conversation with someone who felt the need to expound at length upon why communism is bad. But none of the examples they gave had anything to do with the actual social/political/economic practises that constitute actual communism. Instead they were on about stasi and gulags and propaganda - things that communist countries did because they were insecure in their philosophy. If they had trusted their philosophy, they wouldn't have needed all this stuff that they used to hurt people and ruin people's lives. And if they weren't pouring so many resources into assuaging their insecurity, they'd have had more to put into making their actual social and economic model work.

The evils that result from religion are similar. The problems happen when religions try to force themselves on people who aren't interested, start wars with other religion, and try to colonize countries and impose their values upon legislation. If they truly were secure in their dogma, they could just quietly go about life, letting the benefits of their religion speak for themselves. And if religions didn't go around trying to force themselves on others, there fewer people would perceive other religions as threats. Even I, as a recovering catholic, think I could appreciate the beauty and history of my former religion if it would stop trying to infringe upon my life as a private citizen.

Things They Should Invent: make healthy eating faster and cheaper

Why do people eat unhealthily? Because it's cheaper, because it's easier, and/or because of personal taste. We can't do anything about personal taste, but I have ideas for addressing the other two.

1. Make healthy convenience food cheap

Convenience food is generally considered a non-virtuous luxury, and is taxed accordingly. A pre-made salad is subject to sales tax, but a head of lettuce isn't.

But there's no good reason for this. It's an unquestioned residual protestant work ethic thing, which I'd counter with the economic stimulus argument. We shouldn't be focusing on whether people are jumping through all the hoops, we should be focusing on results. Really, if the goal is to get people to eat healthy, pre-made salads and other healthy convenience food should actually be subsidized. If no one ever has to think "That salad looks yummy, but I don't think I can justify spending $5 on just a salad.", and no one ever has to think "I'd really love a salad right now, but all the washing and chopping up is so much work!", then everyone who likes salad will eat salad.

2. Healthy-only supermarket check-out lines

All items in the grocery store that meet a certain threshold of healthiness get a green sticker, and a certain percentage of the check-out lines are for people who are only buying green-stickered food. If they want to be really hard-ass, they can make it so the healthy cash registers won't even ring in food without green stickers. So now, in addition to health and money factors, people impulse-purchasing potato chips have to ask themselves if it's worth the extra time waiting in line.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My theory, which is mine

I always advise fellow translators to use a more specific preposition than "regarding" (or synonyms thereof). I feel that "regarding" forces the reader to make some effort to figure out how the two elements are related to each other, and if you can use a more specific preposition, then the reader doesn't have to make this effort.

However, I have also begun to think that using no prepositions whatsoever, by piling the elements together as a noun phrase or something similar, might make it even more effortless for the reader. This obviously wouldn't work for non-Anglophones (at least not non-Anglophones coming from Romance languages), but I really do suspect noun phrases scan more effortlessly for Anglophones. Perhaps it's because it implies to the reader that they're closely familiar with the subject matter, giving them a sort of false reassurance.

Specific (fake) example:

"The problem regarding the umbrellas"
takes more effort to read than
"The problem with the umbrellas"
takes more effort to read than
"The umbrella problem"

Strictly speaking, they all provide the same amount of information. If someone is completely unfamiliar with whatever the problem with the umbrellas is, calling it "the umbrella problem" isn't going to help them. But if they already have the information they need to understand "the problem regarding the umbrellas", then "the problem with the umbrellas" or "the umbrella problem" will be more effortless to read and understand.

Is this consistent with your experience with the English language?

(Anonymous comments welcome, non-Anglophone comments welcome, but if English is not your first/primary language please tell me what is.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Improving anti-peer-pressure education

Last week, I blogged about how my grandmother gave me strategies for tricking your friends into thinking you're drinking when you're not, which surprised me because in what world do your friends try to get you to drink when you don't want to? But then I realized that the anti-peer-pressure education I received assumed just that.

The anti-peer-pressure education I received talked about strategies for convincing our interlocutor of our no - making excuses or distracting them - as though simply politely declining wasn't an option. I now find myself wondering if this might have actually introduced the idea that it's normal to peer pressure people, whereas in real life, in the adult world, it isn't. So have an idea for modifying peer pressure education to address this.

On the first day or two, they go through the material normally, with their usual teacher. But the next day, there's a substitute teacher. Rather than being chosen from the supply teacher pool using whatever the normal method is, the sub is very carefully cast. She's young, probably just out of teacher's college. She's attractive and dressed trendily, and very much comes across as someone's cool older sister.

The sub gets the class started off on the anti-peer-pressure exercises from the textbook, then drifts off to the side of the classroom while the students are supposed to be doing their seatwork. She settles in comfortably near where the cool kids are sitting, casually leaning against a ledge or table and looking over the exercises they're working on. Then, in a conspiratorial tone that can be overheard by the entire classroom, she says to the cool kids "I can't believe this is in your curriculum! Do they seriously think you guys are pathetic enough to be obsessing over who is and isn't drinking that day?" It isn't a massive rant, it's more of a bitching session with the students, like you'd have with your classmates when given a particularly stupid assignment. She doesn't make any sort of point of telling the students that they shouldn't smoke or drink or whatever, she instead just quietly accepts it as something people do, the same way we handle it around adults. "I mean, yeah, if you're having a beer you offer your friend a beer. But why on earth do the people who wrote this book think you'd be pathetic enough to obsess over whether they take you up on the offer?"

This will introduce the idea that it isn't cool or adult to peer pressure people, and create motivation by presenting it as something that the boring grownups don't think the kids are cool or adult enough to understand.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

How to buy better school performance with one simple tweak

I've read in a number of places that one approach to improving school performance is to offer money to schools who improve, or offer the most money to the schools who improve the most.

I'm not sure whether or not that approach would work, but here's a simple tweak to maximize its effectiveness: give some of that money to the students.

All students get some money. Students who pass get more money than students who fail. The highest-performing students get more money, but the most improved students also get more money. The highest-performing student in the school and the most-improved student in the school get exactly the same amount of money. Maybe the money baseline could increase with each grade, so that you'll never that less money than last year for getting exactly the same marks (i.e. if a D student pulls their average up to B in grade 10 and gets a shitload of money for improvement, we don't want them to get less money for maintaining a B in Grade 11.)

A school can only be successful if it elicits the desired behaviour in its students. School administrators and teachers already want the students to show the desired behaviour, if only because it makes life easier. If financial incentives are effective and appropriate (and I'm not sure whether or not they are), why not give at least part of them to the group that actually front-line produces the results being evaluated?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Wherein I dare attempt to improve upon Miss Manners

I realize it's insanely presumptuous for a socially awkward dork like me to even think about improving on Miss Manners, but I think I have something that could be useful here.

Dear Miss Manners:

A client came in for tax season! We only see each other once a year. Anyway, in she came for her appointment; I came from around the corner in the office, saw her sitting/waiting, and greeted her with, "Oh! When are you due?" She looks about five to six months pregnant, but ISN'T!!!

We proceeded to discuss drinking enough water, medications, doctor visits, blood tests, etc. But the fact of the matter is she isn't pregnant.

How do I apologize for assuming? Should I apologize?

Something that might work to add as an element of the apology: "I'm so sorry! A co-worker of mine was pregnant recently, and she kept wearing a shirt exactly like that one during the stage where she didn't quite want to wear maternity clothes yet - she's such a tiny little thing that she could wear clothes in proper grown women's sizes until practically the end of the second trimester - anyway, she was wearing a shirt like that about three times a week and we were all speculating on whether she's pregnant but no one wanted to be the one to ask, and when I saw that shirt I just free-associated! In any case, you wear it far better!"

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Analogy for childcare decisions

I've noticed an awful lot of people like to make sweeping declarative statements about which childcare choices are good or bad. But one thing I've noticed from watching my peers who become parents is that, in addition to the dictates of circumstance, so much depends on the personalities of the people involved. Some kids are ecstatic about going to daycare. Some (like me when I was little) would absolutely wither if forced to spend their days in a large group. Some parents find it fascinating to watch their kids every single moment of the day. Some find it outright dull, and do better once the kids are old enough to have an actual conversation.

So here's a series of analogies:

Is it a good idea to go to grad school?
Is it a good idea drink milk?
Is it a good idea to live with roommates?
Is it a good idea to retire at 65?

The answer to all of these questions is "It depends." It depends on your personality, and the personalities of the other parties involved. It depends on your financial and career situation. It depends on your state of health. It depends on your personal values. It depends on the current economic context.

The same goes for childcare decisions. And it really disturbs me that so many people who think their choice is right for everyone are going around having kids.

Things They Should Study: the origin of the neener cadence

Picture a small child taunting his friend, tongue sticking out, thumbs to temples, fingers waving, saying "Neener neener neee-ner!" or "Nanny nanny boo boo!"

You know the exact cadence with which he's neenering, don't you? It's close to the tune of Ring Around the Rosie.

Why does everyone neener with the exact same cadence?

Someone needs to find out where this came from and why it's so universal.

My subconscious does mashups

Last night, I somehow ended up watching a bunch of Springsteen videos on youtube. Then I had dream based on the Dancing in the Dark video, where an oddly attractive young Bruce Springsteen pulls a girl (who the internet swears is Courtney Cox) out from the audience to dance with him on stage. But in my dream, they started doing Billy Elliot-style dancing (like starting at 1:30 here) in perfect unison while singing Born to Run.

I think I'd actually pay good money to see that.

(Unfortunately, that was followed by a dream where I had to stay at in university residence to do on-site training and my room was infested with scorpions, so I woke up edgy despite such entertaining dreams.)

Saturday, February 05, 2011


Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has accused the Liberals of wanting to revive a national child-care program so that parents don’t have to raise their own children.

“It’s the Liberals who wanted to ensure that parents are forced to have other people raise their children. We do not believe in that,” Finley said in the Commons Thursday, the same day that Liberals were promising to revive the national program scrapped by the Conservatives five years ago this week.

This has been all over the blogosphere already, but I haven't seen anyone focusing on what I think is the key word in Minister Finley's statement: forced.

When a government program is available, people can make use of it or not make use of it as they choose. They are by no means required to make use of it, and certainly aren't expected to modify their life choices to make use of it! For example, the Employment Insurance system provides maternity and parental leave benefits of 55% of your average insured earnings up to a maximum of $468 per week. People with new babies can apply for this program, or they can just not apply. However, the existence of this program does not in any way mean we are forced to have babies.

The fact that a government minister landed on the word "forced" in reference to the hypothetical availability of a program makes me inclined to take a step back and look at the other programs this government is providing. What are they trying to force us to do?

But aside from this, you know what is actually, in real life, forcing parents to return to the workforce and send their kids to childcare? Labour conditions! As I've blogged about before, if I had a child, staying home with the kid wouldn't be an option, because I'm the one whose job provides dental benefits. I would be forced to go back to work as soon as parental leave runs out because the current economic context doesn't make it possible for my partner to have a job with benefits.

Even if both partners have jobs with benefits, it still isn't necessarily safe to just leave one's job. I blogged before about my grandmother's co-workers, who voted not to have a pension because their spouses had pensions. Doesn't that sound ideal? A world in which your spouse's pension is enough to support both of you in retirement, so you don't have to worry about accumulating pensionability and can work or not depending on what best meets your family's needs? Well, it turns out many of those spouses worked for Stelco. And this is what happened to their pensions. In a context like this, it would be outright irresponsible to walk away from an opportunity to accumulate pensionability - or even to accumulate CPP eligibility! Even if one pension looks perfectly good now, who knows what will happen in the future? We will spend far more time being seniors than children spend being children, so we can't just put our ability to support ourselves in the last couple of decades of our lives at risk.

Of course, if improving employment conditions is beyond the scope of the government's influence, they could also reduce the likelihood that new parents will be forced to return to work earlier than they'd like by improving the social safety net. My issue of being the only one with dental insurance would be moot if OHIP covered dental care. Concerns about maintaining one's pensionability would be lessened if the CPP provided more than an absolute maximum of $960 a month. If OHIP covered everything we might conceivably need in terms of elder care, we wouldn't have to worry so much about being able to support ourselves in the last decades of our lives.

If this government is really concerned about new parents being forced to return to work sooner than they'd prefer, they need to create a combination of labour conditions and social safety net that makes it possible to stay home, in terms of both meeting the family's immediate needs and long-term consequences.

And, in the meantime, we need to start thinking about what would lead a government minister to conclude that the existence of a program forces Canadians to change their life choices.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Do elders lose their social skills, or just have fewer to start with?

A recent study suggested that elders have more trouble identifying social gaffes than younger people do.

What I'm wondering: does this mean elders lose the ability to identify socially inappropriate behaviour, or does this mean they had lower standards of socially inappropriate behaviour to start with?

The article suggests that the scientists think they are losing their ability, but I don't see anything in the experiment (at least not as described in the article) to rule out the possibility that they never had it in the first place.

This brought to mind a conversation I once had with my grandmother. She told me that if I go out to a bar with friends, I should always order vodka and water. That way, when I've had enough to drink and my friends are trying to get me to drink more, I can quietly ask the bartender to fill mine up with just water, so my friends won't know that difference. All of which raises the question: in what world do your friends try to make you drink more when you've had enough, to the extent that you have to trick them into thinking you're drinking???

Obviously this isn't enough of a basis to draw actual conclusions, but it does occur to me that people who think it's absolutely routine and unremarkable for your friends to pressure you into drinking more than you feel you can handle might never have had sufficiently high standards of socially appropriate behaviour.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Snow day Scrooges

Just over a month ago, many people were complaining that the True Spirit of Christmas has been lost in a sea of rampant commercialism.

Yesterday, many people were complaining that kids got a snow day even though the weather ended up not being as bad as originally forecast.

It surprised me the extent to which the two groups overlapped, because you know what a snow day actually is? The embodiment of the True Spirit of Christmas!

A snow day is a gift from the heavens and an answer to everyone's prayers. It's a day spent with one's family, enjoying the simple things in life like a nice sleep-in, building a snowman, and drinking hot chocolate, and respecting and appreciating the power and beauty of Mother Nature. Warring siblings develop temporary truces, knowing they're stuck together and wanting to get the most out of this rare opportunity. And happy memories are made that will last a lifetime.

These are the kinds of things many people in our society claim to value, and most parents claim to want their children to value. They're used to sell us trucks and Tim Hortons and political platforms, and they're what people have in mind when decrying the commercialism of life. So why throw it all away just because it might slow down the wheels of commerce a wee bit for one day?