Thursday, June 30, 2011

Building a better Senate

As I've blogged about before, there are things I like and dislike about the Senate. The things I like tend to be those that provide a counterpoint to the House of Commons, while what I don't like tends to be when the Senate blindly rubber-stamps the House of Commons, without using the safety net afforded by their unelected nature to provide true sober second thought. So I was disappointed that recent discussions of Senate reform have the Senate either becoming more like the House of Commons without a clear differentiation between the two, or simply want to outright abolish the Senate without introducing sober second thought elsewhere.

So I've started brainstorming some ways to make the Senate more of what I like about the current system with less of what I dislike about the current system and about others' ideas for reform. Here's what I've come up with so far:

What if senators had to be non-partisan?

Currently, senators are affiliated with a political party (generally the party that appoints them, although I think there might be a few individual exceptions.) This is a hindrance to sober second thought when they vote along party lines.

What if we took the complete opposite approach and outright prohibited partisanship in senators? They aren't allowed to be members of political parties, they aren't allowed to donate or work in support of parties or candidates, and people who have engaged in these activities within a certain period of time before appointment are not allowed to be senators. These kinds of standards exist for certain types of high-profile or influential public service positions, so it seems feasible to extend them to make a non-partisan senate.

What if senators could not serve under the prime minister who appoints them?

A problem with the current system is that senators might feel beholden to the PM who appoints them. To solve this, what if prime ministers appointed senators to replace those retiring under the next mandate? Under this model, Stephen Harper would look at which senators will be retiring in 2015-2019, and come up with a short list of possible replacements. The flaw in this plan is that prime ministers can serve multiple terms, so it might not be entirely effective.

What if senators were drawn out of a hat?

Currently, prime ministers appoint one senator to fill each senate vacancy. What if, instead, they selected a number of people for a senate candidacy pool, and then whenever a vacancy comes up, they draw a name at random from this pool of candidates? All candidates appointed by all prime ministers remain in the pool until they reach the age of 75, unless they do something really bad that merits elimination from the pool (this would be carefully defined in the law.)

What if senators were picked at random from the general population?

Instead of the prime minister appointing people, what if we had "senate duty" along the lines of "jury duty"? People are selected at random from the voter list and told to report to Ottawa for a year or five years or some other defined term for senate duty. Relocation expenses are covered, you get a senator's salary, and maybe they have a rule that your employer has to keep your job waiting for you like with the military. I can make an argument for making senate duty mandatory, and I can make an argument for letting people who aren't interested simply opt out. There would also have to be a way to screen out people who aren't mentally competent etc., although they probably already have something like that for jury duty.

What if Senate votes were secret?

It would certainly be more difficult for senators to be beholden to their political masters if no one knows how they voted (or perhaps even how many votes for or against each bill got). This might sound like a bad thing because it's less transparent, but it would also provide a counterpoint to the House of Commons where there are open votes and party discipline.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Rob Ford and Pride

During the last municipal election, I had a theory (which I don't think I blogged) that Rob Ford doesn't really want to be Mayor of Toronto. He either thinks he does or thinks it's what he's supposed to do (or some combination thereof), but he doesn't actually want the reality of it.

Sometimes in this theory the emphasis was on the word "Mayor". He doesn't want to be Mayor of Toronto. It sounds glamourous, but he doesn't actually want the reality of it. It's like when you're a kid and you want to be a princess - you don't actually want to be in the public eye all the time and have to shake hands and cut ribbons and marry some minor German noble and produce offspring. You just want a poofy dress and a unicorn - or a big chair and a shiny necklace, as the case may be.

And sometimes in this theory the emphasis was on the word "Toronto". He didn't seem so very into our urban nature, with a wide range of people doing a wide range of things all crammed into a relatively small geographical area. It seems like he would be happier somewhere smaller, more homogenous, less urban.

Mr. Ford's recent decision not to attend Pride seems to support this theory of mine.

As an individual, I do get not wanting to go to Pride. It's so big and loud and crowded! But that's part of being Mayor - you have to put in an appearance at the big events. Not doing so reads as a diss.

As an individual, I do get not wanting to do something that makes you uncomfortable. It's so much easier just to stay home! But one thing I've learned in life is the higher you rise, the more power and privilege and authority you get, the more you have to be brave and just do it - smile and shake hands and talk at the meeting and get on the plane and give the presentation. And when you have the power and privilege and authority of being Mayor, you have to show up and smile and wave at your city's big events.

As an individual, I do get wanting to go to an enjoyable family event rather than a public event you have no interest in. But that's part of being Mayor - your private life doesn't get to take precedence over public life. That's why they call it public office.

But the advantage of being Mayor is that you can use your status as a VIP to tailor your experience so it's a better fit with your personal preferences. Don't want to stay the whole parade? Put in an appearance, then have your entourage whisk you off to your next cleverly-scheduled appointment. Don't want to walk in a parade on a hot day? Surely you can get a ride in a car or a float or a firetruck. People just too scary? You can physically surround yourself with handpicked advisors or city councillors so you have a buffer until you get more comfortable with your surroundings.

And the advantage of this being Toronto is that there will be a warm reception for someone whom the public knows had to be brave to go to Pride and succeeds in doing so.

But chickening out is unmayoral. Spurning high-profile public events because you just don't wanna is unmayoral. And spurning Pride when your are in a role that traditionally attends is unTorontonian.

The standard that the Mayor attends Pride has existed for decades. The standard that major elected officials put in an appearance at major public events even if their own preference is to do something else has existed since before any of us were born. Anyone who isn't willing to meet these standards shouldn't run for Mayor, at least not of Toronto.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Several years ago, I think I was about 23 at the time, I was talking to someone who had been professionally trained to administer certain personality tests used in HR and counselling and various things like that. She was telling me about how once she was administering a test, and the person being tested asked "Should I answer like I am at work or like I am in private?" That made perfect sense to me. My answers would have been different too if I'd been answering like my work self vs. my private self.

I just realized that now, at the age of 30, my answers would probably be the same.

I'm not entirely sure how that happened. I certainly wasn't being inauthentic when I was 23. I wasn't really faking my personality or hiding my true self at work. I was just a different self in different contexts. And now I'm the same self. Weird.

Teach me about back to work legislation

From this article:

The New Democrats opposed the legislation, which uses a final offer selection process where the two parties submit their final offers and an arbitrator, appointed by Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, chooses a winner.

As well, the NDP MPs, who staged a 58-hour filibuster, are upset with the legislation that imposes a lower wage settlement than one offered by Canada Post during the bargaining process. The legislation passed the House of Commons on Saturday night and then the Senate on Sunday.

How can it do both? If the settlement is imposed by legislation, what do they need an arbitrator for? If they're going to an arbitrator, why is the legislation imposing a settlement?

(Also, is it even normal for back to work legislation to impose a settlement? That seems kind of beyond the scope of legislation. I always thought it just forced people to actually go back to work and get the work done, without caring about whether or not the collective bargaining was resolved.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A selfless reason to strike

One of the reasons why CUPW didn't accept Canada Post's offer is that it had new employees being paid on a lower scale than current employees.

I just realized that rejecting on offer on this basis is completely and utterly selfless.

All the people who get to vote on the offer are existing employees. They wouldn't be affected by this provision. They are rejecting it for everyone who might possibly end up working for Canada Post at any time in the future.

In other words, for us.

With the exception of people who are independently wealthy, people who will always be incapable of working, and perhaps people in professions like medicine whose demand will never go away (although they do downsize nurses from time to time, so you never nkow), the vast, vast majority of us have uncertain career futures. It would be ridiculously overoptimistic to assume that we will never lose our jobs or that we will always be able to find suitable employment in our chosen fields. Most of us have to assume that we will have to look elsewhere at some point. And there's no reason why "elsewhere" wouldn't include Canada Post. By rejecting this offer, Canada Post workers are doing everything they can to make sure that we get to enjoy whatever benefits they currently get to enjoy.

I hope everyone gives them all due credit for this.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Things They Should Invent: anonymous medical history updates for adoptees

I have a family medical history of cancer and Alzheimer's. When I was born, we didn't know this yet because the diseases had not yet manifested themselves in the people who ended up getting them. So if I'd been adopted, even if my birth parents had provided a complete medical history at the time of my birth, I wouldn't have this information.

The Alzheimer's is a very recent development. If I'd had a baby sometime before the age of 30 and put it up for adoption, I would not have been able to provide this information because we didn't know it yet. And the kid would grow up thinking she has no family history of Alzheimer's, because she'd have received a medical history and it didn't include Alzheimer's.

It also occurs to me (I have no data, but it seems logical) that birth mothers of adoptees might tend to be younger than mothers who keep their babies. While some people always want to be parents and some people (like me) never want to be parents, there are people who are not ready to be parents when they're younger but then become ready for it when they're older. This seems like it would skew the adoptee birth mother age a bit younger, which would also mean their parents and grandparents are younger, and therefore less likely to have developed all the serious medical conditions that they eventually will. Even if all adoptees are given all medical history information available at birth, they won't have all the information they need. And, if they have some information, they're likely to think their medical history is healthier than it actually is because it doesn't include many things, when in reality it's just a matter of their biological grandparents still having been alive and healthy at the time they were born.

Solution: a system whereby birth parents in closed adoptions can report updates in family medical history to a central database, and this information gets anonymously communicated to the child. This will give adoptees a more accurate idea of their family medical history without compromising anonymity, and allow them to make fully-informed decisions about their medical care and their own family planning.

Monday, June 20, 2011

From the "focusing on the least important thing in the article" files

Postal workers are delivering 2 million federal pension and social assistance cheques across Canada despite a lockout Monday as the threat of back-to-work legislation looms.

The 9,000 letter carriers are volunteering to provide this service as they have in past labour disputes.

“Going back to work to deal with the cheques may be difficult under the circumstances,” said Canadian Union of Postal Workers national president Denis Lemelin in a news release.

“But our members understand that our dispute is with Canada Post and the government, not with pensioners and people on low incomes. Postal workers will deliver.”

I'm very glad it's getting done, but how is it that they are able to get at the cheques to deliver them if they're locked out? Locked out means the employer is physically barring them from the workplace.

A 15-year-old girl named Yufeng Tao works piecework in a bra hardware factory in an arid industrial-frontier town in southeastern China. She places 57 U-shaped steel bands, one by one, into a spring. The bands are heated and shaped, and then paired to be used as bra underwires. Yufeng earns a 20th of an American penny for each pair, but she’s a fast learner and is soon making 80 cents an hour, nearly double the minimum wage in the previous factory town where she’d tried to become a human economic dynamo.

Why 57? Surely 60 would be more convenient, since it divides into so many nice round numbers, but why not at least an even number since bra wires must necessarily be used in sets of two? Why not, at the very least, put one less wire in the spring than will fit so she can process them in sets of 56?

Analogy for why I still don't feel safe a year after the G20

You know how in Vancouver there were some riots after the Stanley Cup?

Imagine if, after the riots finished and in a completely different part of town, the police started rounding up people who were wearing hockey jerseys and people in their general vicinity, even though none of them were engaged in rioting behaviour. The police beat some of these people, threaten some of them with sexual assault, and detain many of them for hours in conditions without proper toilets or sufficient drinking water.

Now picture the scene of the riot the next day. Some people are cleaning up, some people are taking pictures of the mess and of the people cleaning up, and some people are going about life normally. Now imagine if the police swooped in and kettled all those people who happened to be in that general area the next day and didn't let them leave for hours - no washrooms, no food or drink, threat of arrest, rapidly-worsening weather conditions.

Then imagine if, a year later, you still have no assurances that this won't happen again. Nothing has been said or done to give you the remotest hope that some day in the future you won't be detained, arrested, brutalized or tormented for being in public in a city where a riot recently happened. Or for some other equally valid reason.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

In which I fail to eulogize Clarence Clemons

When I heard that Clarence Clemons passed away, my first thought was "But I just discovered him!"

My fandom for both Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga is very recent. I've been familiar with both of their work for a while, of course, but the youtube-marathon ipod-saturating concert-date-googling fandom for both performers started sometime in the past six months. And I only learned in the past week or so that Clarence Clemons had played with both of them, which led me to think that I really must google what else he's done. Which, of course, I procrastinated.

So tonight, in addition to mourning the loss of a musical legend, I'm mourning the loss of the opportunity to ever be properly fangirl for him.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Excellent posing skills

I was very impressed when I saw this picture in the newspaper:

(The people in the picture are irrelevant to this post. Apparently they're in the news because the gentleman has an ironic surname.)

My first thought was how astoundingly skinny the lady is. But then I noticed the drape of her skirt, and realized she's not as skinny as she looks at first glance. They've very cleverly placed her arm (the one that's holding the bouquet) so it's lined up perfectly with the back of her torso, creating the optical illusion that her torso consists only of the visible portion not blocked by her arm. And the gentleman's hands around her waist are very carefully arranged to create the illusion that they are wrapped nearly all the way around the skinny illusory waist without wasting space or destroying the optical illusion by placing the hands where they'd be blocked by the bouquet arm.

This appears to be achieved entirely with careful arrangement of the pose, and the effect is better than paid photoshop jobs used in fashion magazines. Well done!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Building a better tornado warning

There was recently a tornado warning in Hamilton at 1:30 in the morning. At 1:30 in the morning, many people are in bed, not monitoring the media. They'd have no way of knowing that a tornado is coming.

Last time there was a tornado warning here in Toronto, I continued to sit in my living room, monitoring the Weather Network and Twitter and watching out the window. The reason why I didn't go into the basement is because a) it's a parking garage and b) I'd have no way to know when the warning ended from down there. There's no TV or internet, I doubt you can get radio signals down there (and if you can, I don't know which radio stations would broadcast immediately that the tornado threat is ended), so basically it was a choice between being comfortable and aware, or milling around in an underground parking garage with no idea of when to go back up.

Tornadoes are different from ordinary weather warnings in that simply going indoors and going about life normally is insufficient. You have to get away from windows and cantilevered roofs and go underground if possible. The actions required to save lives are immediate and specific, and only need to be taken for a relatively short period of time. We need a better way of warning people when a tornado (and other weather phenomena with a similar degree of urgency, like a hurricane or a tsunami) is imminent. It needs to be able to warn people even when they aren't monitoring the media, and it also needs to let them know when the warning is over.

My idea: set up a warning system that rings every telephone in the affected area. It shows on call display as "Weather Warning", and you hear a recorded message telling you the affected area and what specific action to take. It would be timed so that a human answering the phone would hear the message, and voicemail would also record the message in case people don't answer right away. This would make it clear how urgent the situation is and that you, yes you, the person answering the phone, need to go hide in the basement right now. Then, after the warning is over, you'll get another call giving you the all clear.

But what about cellphones? If it's technically feasible, I propose using cellphone towers to ring every cellphone in the affected area. If this isn't possible, the they should go by the home address to which the phone is registered. That will make sure that people who don't have a landline get the warning when they're at home. Anyone who's out in a place of business or other building will get warned when the building's phones ring, so the only people who aren't reached are those who are outdoors away from telephone and media contact. Obviously an ideal solution would be one that can reach people who re out of contact too, but being able to reach everyone who's within reach of a phone and warn them to take immediate action would be a massive improvement over the status quo.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Quote of the day

Quote of the day, from Miss Conduct:

How are teenagers supposed to learn good conversational skills if the only conversational strategies they're exposed to are unsolicited advice, judgmentalism, and prying?

As if I didn't already have enough social skill problems, for a time when I was younger I quite genuinely thought that the unsolicited advice, judgmentalism and prying were actually how you have a conversation, because that constituted the critical mass of the conversations that people deigned to strike up with me.

So please, people who are in charge of or in contact with young people, converse with them like you'd want to be conversed with so they can learn how to have a proper conversation!

In appreciation of my Grade 6 Music teacher

One of the things my Grade 6 music teacher had us do was formal analysis of Bohemian Rhapsody. She basically walked us through it socratically, identifying the genres of the different sections and then pinpointing precisely what characteristics made it that genre. We also read the lyrics, described the plot, watched the music video, and sang through the song ourselves a few times, having fun with the "Galileo! Galileo!" bit and headbanging à la Wayne's World. Along the way, she gave us a brief overview of Queen's other work, including We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, which came in handy for sports tournaments. It was a good approach that music analysis more accessible and comprehensible than the traditional approach of using classical music, and it got us listening to and appreciating music that was slightly before our time, which is rather a big thing for a teacher to achieve with 11-year-olds.

It wasn't until I was well into adulthood that I learned that Freddie Mercury was queer and died of AIDS - and, actually, he died of AIDS probably just months before we started looking at his music in class, and this in a time and place where that would have been rather scandalous. My initial uncensored internal mental reaction (which I know is inappropriate, that's why it stayed uncensored and internal) was "But that's the guy who wrote the music we used for headbanging and sports!" I was rather shocked that I'd been enjoying his music all these years without having any idea that he was queer or that he had AIDS.

Which, now that I think about it, was probably a very deliberate choice on the part of my teacher. That time and place were more homophobic than I care to admit, and, while I didn't grok AIDS yet, I'm sure people were far more judgemental about it than they are today. But my teacher helped her students escape from this closedmindedness by choosing music that was pedagogically ideal for teaching analysis, unquestionably a cultural touchstone, and just happened to have been created by someone who was later diagnosed with AIDS. She never got into the private lives of the artists, we looked only at the music. But she got this particular bit of rock canon into our heads and normalized, setting us up for an "ah-ha!" moment at some undefined point later in life, when we'd learn that he'd died of AIDS and go "Whaaaa? But he was just a guy!"

Exactly. Point made. Well done, Ms. L!

Saturday, June 04, 2011

So how do you issue a press release anyway?

This is just a tangent to a far more interesting story, but it got me wondering. After Brigette DePape protested in the Senate, she released a press release. As the National Post describes it:

Even as she was in custody, Ms. DePape immediately issued a press release, referring to herself as Brigette Marcelle, in which she said she had realized that working in Parliament wouldn’t help her “stop Harper’s agenda.”

So how exactly do you issue a press release? And how do you get the media to notice it?

I have seen Canada Newswire and I assume the process has something to do with posting information there. But there is a ridiculous number of press releases on Canada Newswire. Do news outlets have people who sit there reading them all looking for something interesting? This particular story mentioned Ms. DePape's press release right from the outset (earliest versions were posted online on Friday afternoon, perhaps before the actual throne speech even ended), and an earlier version of the National Post story took on a slightly baffled tone, as though they had no idea who it was who had issued this press release. And yet they still saw the press release in time to incorporate it into the earliest version of the story.

How does this whole process work?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Possible conflict between Windows 7 Service Pack 1 and iTunes (and possibly Sims 3)

Short version: iTunes wouldn't sync or restore my iPod (3rd generation touch) after I installed Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (KB976932) on May 28, 2011. Uninstalling the service pack made the iPod useable again. I don't yet have a solution to allow the two to coexist.

Blow-by-blow: On Sunday I was heading out to do my errands, only to notice that my iPod thought it had no songs on it. Weird. When I got back home I tried to sync it, only to have iTunes tell me it couldn't detect the iPod and it needed to be restored. I was rather wary based on my past experiences with restoring this iPod, but I didn't see a choice.

As I'd suspected, it got stuck in recovery mode, giving error code 6 every single time (unlike my previous attempts, when it would change it up a bit. I tried all the usual stuff - restarting iTunes, rebooting the computer, switching USB ports, switching cables, updating USB drivers (they were already up to date), reinstalling iTunes, turning off security software. When I looked up error code 6, it said the problem might be with a registry entry called TCPWindowSize, but the regedit search function found no such entry. The iTunes diagnostic found everything fine, except that it claimed it couldn't detect the iPod.

I ended up going to the Apple store (lesson learned: get an appointment. The schedule looks empty during the day, but fills up after work) and getting them to restore my iPod. But then when I got back home and tried to load it up with music again, it wouldn't work. It kept freezing only a few songs in (e.g. 20 or 30 songs into my nearly-5,000 song playlist), then telling me it couldn't load the song in question because of an "unspecified error" (with error codes 0xE800801C, 0xE800400C, or 0xE800400B), then telling me it couldn't read the disk of the iPod. I set about removing variables, but the best I could get it to do is load 48 songs by a single artist, which completely defeats the purpose of an iPod. I tried restoring an older backup of the iPod, but it froze around 85% of the way in. The iTunes diagnostic said that iTunes Helper was not running, despite the fact that I've never disabled it on this computer. Restarting and reinstalling iTunes didn't help. Googling around the problem, I found suggestions to disable certain USB controllers in the Device Manager, but that only made my USB ports stop working. Another googled-up suggestion was that my music might not me loading because my iPod was restored on a Mac at the Apple store and I have a PC at home, so I held my breath and restored it again. And, once again, was faced with error code 6. I think this is the point where I broke out the wine.

With visions of having to schlep back to the Apple store with my oversized PC laptop in tow and insisting that they get my iPod to sync MY music, I finally remembered that the beginning of these problems correlated with a large Windows update. So I went back into Windows Update and uninstalled recent updates one by one, trying to restore the iPod in between. After I removed Service Pack 1, my iPod finally restored successfully, and allowed me to reload all my songs by restoring a previous backup.

The next logical step would be to disable automatic syncing in iTunes and then reinstall the service pack, but I haven't gotten there yet.

In general, this little iPod has given me more trouble than any other piece of technology I've ever used in the past 30 years. But I suspect this problem might have been with the service pack, because of two other things that happened at the same time.

1. Sims 3 had an update while all this was going on, so I installed it, but the installer crashed just before it finished. I was caught in limbo between the old version and the new version, and had to reinstall the game from scratch.

2. Before I uninstalled the service pack, I tried to do a system restore. That didn't work either due to "an unspecified error (0x80070005)."

I can't be certain that these two problems were due to the service pack because I didn't troubleshoot thoroughly enough to eliminate variables, but as it stands I'm hesitant to reinstall the service pack. At the moment I'm just glad my ipod works (I get edgy and stimmy without music in my ears, and having to go to sensory-overload places like malls and Apple stores makes it worse), but I'll update if I figure out anything new.